Friday, January 20, 2017

I am Beautiful

Two days ago, I didn't know it.

I know it now.

I am beautiful.

What I am about to share is deeply personal because it has deeply impacted my heart. It's a story that may not seem profound to some, but feels as if it has the potential to be dramatically life-altering for me.

What you need to know is that I have lived most of life believing my worth was determined by my performance. That perfection was the path to grace. That love was given when it was earned, and therefore withdrawn when it wasn't. I have lived being self-critical, seeing my faults and failures and believing they reduced my beauty. Add three children and many pounds, and to me even the outside seemed as unattractive as the inside.

It's a terrible way to live. In fact, it's not really living. And I know all the platitudes. I know the right theology on these matters. I know what I should believe about self-image and value. And if you are relating to my story so far, you probably know all those things too. Knowledge alone, however, never truly transforms anyone. At least, it hasn't changed me.

Place that broken kind of thinking into the culture we live in and it's a recipe for disaster. Society defines a woman's beauty with a size 2 and skinny jeans, no crows feet or muffin tops. 21st century America is a hard place to be a woman who sees beauty looking back at her regardless of what the mirror shows or the scale says or the payroll reflects. It's no wonder broken people stay broken in their thinking about being beautiful.

Simmer all of this in a pot of motherhood where I am raising two daughters and one son and constantly questioning how I can teach then to define beauty differently. I don't want my girls to worry about weight. I also don't want my girls to know I'm insecure about myself. I don't want my son to see a woman's beauty as skin deep. I also don't want him to see me give more time to my face than my heart.

If you had asked me two days ago if I was beautiful, 
my answer would have been no.

And it has everything to do with the kinds of mirrors I hold up to myself. The mirrors I hold up are more often like ones you'd find in a Maze of Mirrors at the county fair. The ones that distort your image. You know the kind, right? The mirrors that give you a giraffe neck with short, squatty body in one and next you're stretched side to side like a taut blanket. At a carnival, you exchange a ticket for what you know will be skewed representation and we laugh and giggle our way through knowing what the reflection shows is not as reality is. 

But what about in life? 

We hold up our Fun House mirrors and forget we should expect distortion.  These mirrors have a convexness has been conditioned by our failures, so the object in our mirror seems smaller than actual size. And we begin to believe it's all true - that we are small, insignificant, and hold little value. 

Or we wash our mirrors down with concave fantasy and see the blemishes magnified. Every mistake and flaw brought to light and gives way to thinking that we are the sum of broken pieces and failures - physically, emotionally, or spiritually.

In all of this, there has still been an exchange to peering into these mirrors, but this time the cost is much higher than a few tickets and moments of fun. Instead, we choose to believe these mirrors show true reality, and so we exchange a peek at these distortions for our peace, our joy, our hope, our self-worth, our confidence. 

It's a high price to pay. For some many of us, myself included, we have gotten lost in that carnival maze without even knowing it. So, you ask a woman if she knows she's beautiful, and you know what you'll hear most of the time? A small, timid, ashamed "No."

But not for me. Not as of two days ago. 

My mirror changed dramatically and I believe, therefore, I have been too...

My 12 year old is a natural writer. She has wanted to tell stories from the time she could talk and put them to paper from the time she could form her letters. And she's good. Really good. Lately, she's been working on a book. (Yes, a book. I love her chutzpah.) Anyway, she asked me to read her first two chapters. I had been putting it off, and finally sat myself down to honor her request. 

She did a great job at drawing in the reader and incrementally introducing details that keeps their attention. I could also tell she worked hard at giving details so the reader can feels as if they know the people and spaces of the fictional world. For instance, in her second chapter, she describes the protagonist's mother this way:

"Mother had beautiful brown hair that went down to her shoulders. 
She also had wavy bangs that made her look even more beautiful than she already was. "

I remember reading that and thinking again about the lovey way she wove detail into this short description. I also thought it tender how she lovingly describe the mother's looks. Then I kept reading.

"Dad had short, spiky black hair and oval-ish glasses. He also had a goatee. 
You could see his gray hairs better in his goatee than you could with the hair on the top of his head."

It was at this moment, I had to stop reading. If you know my husband, you know that how she described the father was my husband to a tee. In a second's time, I remember thinking, "That's Paul. She's describing Paul. Oh my goodness! When she described the mother, was she describing me!?! Is that how she sees me!?!"

I kept reading, and found the younger blond-haired, blue-eyed brother was the spitting image of her own brother. And it was then that i knew she had given her fictional family the same physical characteristics as her real family. And I was floored. 

"My daughter thinks I'm beautiful. My daughter thinks I'm beautiful."

And a warmth flooded my heart. In that moment, I saw myself differently. This tween walks everyday life with me. This is the one who has seen me cry more tears in the last 9 months, then the rest of her life cumulatively. This is the girl who's asked her daddy why I am so sad. Who's told me I seem so serious. Who's looked at me in surprise when I joke and laugh along with my family these past few weeks. This very one, who has seen the very best and the very worst of me, sees me beautiful.

And the still, small Voice whispered in my ear, "It's how I have always seen you."

And I knew in that moment I felt more beautiful than I ever had.

I knew I was beautiful.

And I knew I would never forget that moment. 

Maybe we just need to chuck the mirrors that get us lost in a maze of self-loathing and comparisons. Maybe we should look into the eyes of our children, of our spouses, of our loyal friends and allow them to be the mirror we choose. Maybe we can write ancient words on our hearts, etch them so deeply within, that they are the mirror of God's love for us (1 John 3:1).

I'm turning in my ride tickets. I'm leaving the fair. I am choosing to correct my vision.

I am beautiful. 

And I know something about you.

You are beautiful too.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Religion's Underbelly (a poem)

I wanted you 
to be delivered 
Small, medium, or large - it didn’t matter.
Just prove predictable,

Should you arrive early, 
I’d be tempted 
to set you aside 
for my readied willingness to catch up 
Should you be late,
I might demand
a partial refund of faith
write a poor user review,
warning of 
potential disappointment.

If dimensions 
aren’t right,
no worries.
I can trim you 
down to size.
Funnel the love 
until it seeps, 
at a manageable pace.
Whittle the edges of mystery 
with a lathe 
of certainty.
Accept only rules 
of engagement
that grant privilege 
and safety.
I’ll be sure to discount 
the grace, 
stocking the shelves 
at the five and dime,
so that demand 
never exceeds supply.

but you.

of all people;
so irreligious
in your holiness.
Unrighteous piety
that's frivolous 
in love;
on charlatans,

in anger
toward those 
of the sanctuary.
The liars, 
the chancers,
the cheats.

with dirty feet
unclean hands.
Touching prostitutes
crossing the road
to bandage 
the dying.

a derelict
of the very system 
to explain you, 
make you plain, 
bring you close,
make you attainable.

Worked my fingers 
to the bone,
beat my head 
against the wall,
and decoded 
all I could,

because you.

an ever-moving target,
to manipulate; 
an uncontrollable 
mighty wind.

a blue-hot fire,
burning flame.

I never know if trying to explain my writing is helpful or a hindrance to the work itself. In this case, I shall give a short postlude. I have grown increasingly discontent, over the years, with the workings and ways of the American church. We are so tempted to analyze our success according to easily measurable numbers (attendance, building, and cash). And while these metrics can be helpful in assessing growth, they are far from taking into account the intangibles of true discipleship (increased virtues, deepening love of God, self, and others). The latter is much more difficult to gauge, and so we return to the things that most quickly define us as a congregation - our size (in people, facility, and dollars). 

This poem is part of my own processing as I consider the unsolvable nature and mystery of God. It's a product of my own wrestling in this last year of a changing hermeneutic in my life about the place of certainty in my walk with God. The god I knew as a child was finite, fully knowable, and predictable. As I age, I recognize that "seeing through a glass dimly" means there will be great and unsearchable things I won't know this side of heaven. Things about God's character, His stance of controversial issues, and the full matter of salvation. And I am becoming more and more comfortable, perhaps even delighted, in the uncertainty.

So, this piece is like retrospective in part, and still a current autobiography, as I seek to live resisting the urge to reduce God to a definable, fully comprehensible entity. He's much too lovely for that. But the malady of the church is that we often, quite belligerently, defend the certainty of our point of view. The people of God, who on some level know God is mystery, choose to diminish this mystery for the sake of our own comfort. And herein lies the irony - religion, which is developed to grant people access to God, is often the most guilty of culprits in denying people that very proximity of grace. It's the weakness of religion, because God was never meant to be contained.

What if believers walked in a certainty of God's goodness, seen most vividly in Christ, and a willingness to admit uncertainty in most everything else? 

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Greatest of These is Love?: Hard Days & Heartaches

The last nine months have been some of the most difficult of my life, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about faith and hope. 

The reality of hope - the belief that something will get better before it actually does - is perhaps the hardest kind of work I’ve ever done. At least, recently. I find myself wanting to stay melancholy and to continue in my hesitation about a better, dawning day. I want to set my expectations low so I won’t have to suffer disappointment on an acute scale. And for the normal kinds of stuff and events of living that gets me by without a lot of wounds. But this big stuff…this deep-down ache of grief, the heartaches that accompany transitions, the holding out for a job that is still elusive,the believing that one of those houses I’ve bookmarked on could actually be ours one day soon…all of that is a very different story. 

If things are to be different, I must have hope. 

A hope that burns as brightly as the sun when it’s midnight. Hope that clings to life in the midst of death. Hope that doesn’t dry up with the drought or starve in the famine. Hope that when all else is uncertain, there is one sure thing - this too shall pass and on the other side it’s good. The early apostles carried that kind of hope. The slaves in early America carried that kind of hope. People throughout history have faced the firing squad, the dictator, the loss, the genocide, the need, the diagnosis and have held tightly to hope. I am learning to admire them on a whole new level. 

It’s one thing to talk about hope, and it’s a far different thing to live by it. 

To live by it means I will not let my present state of existence defeat me. To live by it means I will believe for something tomorrow even when no forward progress was made today. To live by it means I work to fulfill what is my responsibility in this world (no more and no less). To live by it means I can stare death in the face and say without flinching, “It is well with my soul.” To live by it is to believe, beyond the shadow of a fear or a doubt, that all really is well, even when it isn’t. To live by it means I am certain about some things concerning the God I serve. 

Things like He is good, wants the good, and is therefore working for mine. That I am loved no matter what. That He is able to do far more than I give Him credit for. That He can still make my tomorrows the best days of my life. That I do not have to listen to Shamus’ voice, and allow Shamus* to have influence over me. That grace is really more about doing absolutely nothing except receiving. And then I trust that God will do the rest and it will be sufficient. To live by hope is to have faith in the God I proclaim…and to have faith that I am who He says I am.

First faith, then hope. There is no hope when I do not believe. There is no hope if I fail to understand a bit of who God is and a bit of who I am to Him. First faith, then hope.

And I think about 1 Corinthians 13. How this love chapter ends with these words: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” I think about something that has been ruminating in my mind and heart for nearly a year. How it all is coming together with a little more clarity. I have always wondered about this 13th verse of this 13th chapter - the greatest of these is love? Really? 


I mean, faith is a big deal. Scripture tells us we can not please God without faith. That seems pretty major, right? And hope? Well, without getting into the etymology, let’s just say that the way the NIV translates Isaiah 40:31 sums it up well, “but those who hope in the Lord, will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” 

Faith and hope are significant and substantial realities, so why would Paul say the greatest is love?

Because maybe Paul isn't talking in terms of superlatives as I had always imagined. Maybe he's listing a progression. Maybe the murderer turned apostle, isn’t saying, “You know, faith and hope are okay, but love is where it’s at. Love’s the best. Gold medal winner. All others are losers, so choose love.” Maybe the once blind Saul is speaking in terms of progression. “First faith, then hope, and finally love. Love is impossible without the others, so the greatest reality in this journey is love. It means you’ve come the farthest distance.” Could it be that what I considered to be multiple choice virtues from a 1st century pen is really the legend on the map of discipleship? 

First faith, then hope, and finally love.

My last nine months have been plain hard. Like raise-the-white-flag-in-surrender kind of hard. I have been faced with the choice of whether I will lock in my faith and live according to the narrative of hope. It’s no longer idle theological chat. It’s fish or cut bait. It’s sink or swim. Do or die. It’s looking at my reflection in the mirror and asking myself, “What are you going to choose?”  If I believe what I believe about God, then it can make a difference in the midst of these hard days. First faith, then hope. And if I can do this…have the hope to be at peace even when I might be in pieces; if  I can discover an inner peace that allows me to fall asleep on the boat in the middle of a storm…then maybe love is what will naturally result in my life.

And tonight, I caught just a glimpse of what could be. A Niki who loves God in the sweetness of everyday, ordinary miracles. A Niki who loves God and so she laughs at the future and opens her arms to what may come. A Niki who loves herself so she is kind to herself, lets herself off the hook, and gives herself some stinkin’ grace. A Niki who loves herself enough to erase the standard of perfection - for her and everyone else. A Niki who loves others with abandon and without fear. A Niki who loves with her beautiful, messy life, allowing her dreams, her heartaches, and her being to change the space she’s in.

First faith, then hope, and finally love. Faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these? Love....because you have come the furthest distance.

For the first time in nine months, I can genuinely say I look forward to what is to come. For the first time in nearly a year, I will rest my head on my pillow and know that the best days aren’t really behind me. I suppose some would believe that I should have been saying and knowing these things all along, but you know what? Sometimes life beats you down. Sometimes circumstances bleed you out. And sometimes, even Jesus people can’t hold on to trite platitudes about a heavenly future because today feels like walking through Hell. But tonight, it’s different. 

Tonight, I see the possibilities of love, and that they can include me too. Tonight, hope is starting to take root and I pray it will endure. So here's to faith. Here's to hope. Here's to going the distance of and finding the blundering potential of love.

*It's a long story, but Shamus is the name I give to the destructive self-talk we all fight that would keep us in despair, defeat, and shame.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

How the Incarnation Showed Up in My Grief

Grief doesn’t fall into a nice timetable. It has no respect for my schedule. And it showed up in full  force yesterday.

The holidays have been hard for me. Our family is in transition and the future is unclear. On top of all those changes, I spent my first Christmas without my dad. And my first New Year. There’s something distancing about stepping into a year that my dad will never see. It feels like I’ve lost yet another point of connection with him.

Add to that, this coming Monday would be his 65th birthday. This week, I’m sandwiched between emotional holiday firsts and a birthday I can no longer celebrate with my father. 

Yesterday was scheduled with school. Things like adding links to the paper chain we started this week where all five of us add our own link every day with something for which we are thankful. When the time comes in the next few months to move out of this house that has been our home for the last 18 years, we are going to weave that chain of paper through the empty rooms. Like our way of extending gratitude for the life and memories these walls hold.

So, yesterday school was on the docket. Reading about Charlemagne, practicing penmanship, learning metric system conversions, and teaching the concept of regrouping (Lord, help me). I was standing in the kitchen fixing lunch and I lost it. Tears running down my face, full-on ugly cry. Grieving. Aching. The deep soul kind. 

It’s hard to cook pepperoni through a flood of tears.

My tween walks in, sees my tears, and asks if I need a hug. I take it. Paul walks in, sees my face, and immediately folds me into his chest. By the time the microwave beeped that the pepperoni was done, all five of us were intertwined together for the sake of consoling me. I have good people.

The thing is, the tears kept coming. Off and on all day. After doing map work in history, while my 2nd grader use math blocks to solve an equation, and in the basement changing out laundry. None of those moments were expected or convenient. None of it was part of my plan for the day. Not a single tear was on my calendar.

But every single time, my family met me where I was. Every single time. I was not alone in my grief yesterday. 

I actually thought I was going to get away with a crying spell last night. I was sitting in the dark bedroom trying to clear myself up while the kids brushed their teeth. I stood up, ready to exit, and in walks my 7 year old. She sees my face. 

“Mommy, are you sad again about Granddad?”

“Yes, honey.”

And as she wraps her little arms around my waist, she looks up at me and says, “I’m sorry, Mommy. I don’t want you to be sad by yourself.”

Grief wasn’t anticipated, invited, or even welcome yesterday, but had it not been for my grief, I would not have found this beautiful consolation of my family. 

In the church, we talk about Christmas as the Incarnation, when God put on flesh. It was, and still is, a miracle that God would enter our world so we would know that we don’t have to go it alone anymore. Yesterday, on the heels of a hard holiday, while still in the midst of the 12 Days of Christmas, the Incarnation happened again. Jesus took up residence in the hugs, kisses, and comfort of my family. And it is no less a miracle to know that they are entering into my journey of grief so I don’t have to go it alone.