False narratives

There are people who believe we create our own reality, or that we somehow attract into our lives the events — even the worst of trauma — that happen to us. Some of that sounds new-agey and off-putting to many Christians, yet a similar ideology has crept into many churches as well. Recently I posted the following to a discussion of some of the impact Norman Vincent Peale’s positive thinking message has to this day:

Many people have no idea how much Peale’s positive thinking ideas have infiltrated so much of Christianity, and have impacted people who have never even heard of the man. I have a friend who would not even tell me what she had been diagnosed with and — when I insisted on knowing — she whispered the name of her condition as if she was forced to pronounce some horrible obscenity and hoped no one would actually hear it. Her reason? She didn’t want to “come into agreement” or “speak out” anything negative.

…then there are those who refuse to “hear a bad report”. I’m all for not listening to gossip, but I think it’s silly to avoid negative news about someone, and I think it’s dangerous and immoral to silence those who are victimized by someone else. There is nothing righteous about burying one’s head in the sand and refusing to hear anything that might make us uncomfortable, challenge our worldview, or even cause us distress.

I wonder if these people, who claim to be Christians, actually read their Bibles. Thing is, the Bible is full of “bad reports”. The prophetic books of the Old Testament seem to be focused on getting people to wake up and face some hard truths about themselves and about their society. The Psalms are not “happy clappy songs”, but are all too often laments. (I didn’t understand this as a kid: why did God not punish King David for all his complaints, and why on earth were they included in the Bible?)

That’s not to say that those of us who claim to be Christians should be all doom and gloom, and focused on negativity. But I would think that those of us who claim to have an eternal hope, those of us who claim to be in relationship with the God of the Universe, would be able to be capable of facing reality without playing all sorts of mind games, pretending away what we don’t like, and claiming that perception matters more than truth.

Today I was reminded of a flip side of this: negative thinking versus positive thinking. Actually those are not the only two alternatives, contrary to what some people have insisted. “Negative thinking” — focusing on the negative to the exclusion of the positive — is just as much in error as its opposite extreme.

Perception never matters more than truth, even when it is our own perception.

For most of my adult life, I believed a false narrative about God and about myself. That doesn’t mean that everything I believed about God was a lie, or that I was delusional about myself. While most of what I thought and believed was based on truth, the way I lived my life, the way I interacted with people, the way I prayed, the way I interpreted situations — all that was woven together in such a way that was not completely true. I am still unraveling the general narrative I created about life, and holding it up to what I now know and believe to be true.

A big part of therapy for me was what I eventually called “replacing lies with truth”. A wonderful couple that ministered deeply to me preferred to call it “replacing ungodly beliefs with godly beliefs”. Much healing has come to me as a result of pondering the question: Will I allow myself to be defined by my past experiences, traumas, and sins, and by what people tell me about myself, or by the God Who created me, loves me, and knows me best?

For years, the people I was most comfortable with were those who agreed the most with the narrative I’d woven together to make sense of my life. I was filled with self-blame and shame, so it felt familiar to hang out with people who blamed me and shamed me. There were a lot of things about me that I viewed in a negative way, and I thought people were a bit daft if they didn’t agree with me. Now I wasn’t all negative — in fact, I would get quite annoyed at people who didn’t affirm what I thought to be my good points. While I don’t believe in what some call the “Law of Attraction”, I do believe that we tend to choose to associate with people who feel familiar, who agree with us for the most part, and who don’t try to shake up our entire worldview. So, whether it’s intentional or not, we often tend to befriend and even marry people who will reinforce our beliefs about ourselves, about God, and about the way the world works.

I’m reminded of a woman I know who married a man who — even before marriage — described her in rather negative terms, and let her know by word and deed that she wasn’t very important to him. And you married him? several people asked her. Even after the things he said and did to you, the way he insisted that his friends, family, and career would always come before you? She would answer, “I couldn’t blame him. He was right. I’m not that important, and I should be thankful that someone like him would even want to marry me, with my past and all my faults.” She and her husband may have been in agreement, but it was with a lie.

For years, I believed that certain things I had done left me somewhat tainted. Yes, God forgave me, but… Because of that, I surrounded myself with people and with churches and with teachers who agreed with me, who reinforced my narrative about a God who forgives but somehow isn’t quite able to wash every last stain of my sins away. I even allowed someone close to me to repeatedly remind me that I was not “pure”.

And then…well, I realized the lie of that. What upset me most — once the lie was exposed — is not that it was a false accusation against me, but that it was a false accusation against my Savior, as if His blood shed on the cross was not fully capable of cleansing sins as grievous as mind. (I’ve written posts about that, and about the whole “purity culture” thing on this blog, as I’ve worked through much of the false teaching I once eagerly embraced because it made understandable the pervasive sense of shame I carried throughout my teens and most of my adult life.)

Today I’ve been pondering some of that. I feel as if I’m still basking in the wonderful aftermath of receiving the Sacrament of Confession. I am more at peace, and less defensive, about the fact that I am prone to wander and sin — and yet I am more grieved by that propensity than ever. It seems contradictory, but it isn’t. I realize how desperately I rely on my beautiful Savior…and more and more I realize that this doesn’t make me a uniquely flawed and terrible person, but just a human.

Besides, even if I once was all that terribly flawed and horrendously awfully sinful as I once believed, not even the faintest stain of that now remains. Yes, I still sin. Yes, I still have flaws and failings. But the new narrative — the truthful narrative — of my life is that God did not create some cosmic mistake when He formed me together in my mother’s womb. In fact, some of the very things that I thought were flaws and defects, or that others think are flaws and defects, might actually be the way He intended to make me all along. Thank God that He is still working on me and that, as He promised, He will bring that good work to completion.

That’s the narrative worth embracing.

Hiding from help

“Why do you get angry at any adult who really cares about you?” my sweet, kind, and bewildered friend confronted me when I was in high school.

“What? No, I don’t. I just can’t stand ultra-concerned types.” I put so much sneered emotion behind the words “ultra-concerned types” that one would have thought I was plagued by obnoxious, overly-zealous, heavy-handed, intruding busybodies trying to bulldoze over me and seize control of my life.

“But why get so angry when they care about you?” she asked again, mentioning some specific examples of kind, wonderful adults.

I brushed her off, muttering something about how I suffered at the hands of “ultra-concerned types” and their annoying ways. I rather angrily denied that I was angry, and then changed the subject.

It took me over three decades to find out the answer to my friend’s question.

Back then, and for those many years afterward, I was hiding a deep dark secret, one so deep and so dark that I could only cope by refusing to think about it, by pretending it away. That didn’t work well. As a teenager, I was filled with the constant, overwhelming sense that there was something very much wrong with me, but I had no idea what — and I never connected that sense with the hidden burden I carried. Fear, shame, and secrecy had become a way of life for me. So had a form of denial so profound that it was almost as if I’d created an alternative reality for myself.

I had to keep people at arm’s length. If anyone, especially an adult, got too close and actually looked into my eyes, they might know whatever it was I dared not face.

At the same time, my innermost being was desperately crying out for help, and my greatest desire was to be rescued…from what, I dared not think. The memories of some of the wonderful adults who managed to overcome my defenses long enough to plant seeds of hope in my bruised and battered, locked up heart, cause tears of gratitude as I write. There was, for example, the youth director from another church who spent a Friday night playing bumper pool with me, laughing with me, having fun with me, and treating me as an interesting person of value and importance. I don’t remember your name, my brother, and I never saw you again, but you were like a ministering angel to me that night.

Then there was Mr. Bottaro, my tenth grade English teacher. He told me, when I was attempting to argue with him about a paper I’d written, “Someday I’m going to break through your façade.” Façade? I fumed angrily. What on earth is he talking about? The nerve of him! The next year, even though I was no longer in his class, he would often stop me on campus and ask how I was doing. He never believed my polite responses or automatic answers. “No, really,” he would insist, his eyes trying to search mine for the truth. “Come up to my room and see me,” he would urge, no matter what I answered. I knew he saw…something.

Finally I decided to take him up on his offer. I would sit in front of him, let him look in my eyes, and tell him that there was something terribly, seriously wrong with me but I was too afraid to try to think about it. Surely he would be able to figure it out. That was my plan, anyway, to beg him to help me, when I arrived on campus early one morning. I was on my way to his classroom when another teacher stopped me with devastating news.

Mr. Bottaro was dead of a massive heart attack.

It took over 30 years for me to try again, to sit across from someone else and let him try to figure out what on earth was so terribly, horribly wrong with me. But, as desperate as I was for help, I didn’t make it easy for my therapist. I hadn’t just erected protective walls around my growing mountain of secrets — I’d planted prickly cacti outside the walls, dug a moat, and filled it with alligators. Then I stood in my watchtower, safely out of reach, and threw rocks at anyone who dared commit the heinous crime of caring in ways that made me uncomfortable or threatened my defenses. My therapist did not have an easy time gaining my trust, and overcoming my anger and fear.

Exposing our dark secrets to the light of day — it’s scary stuff, I tell you. Absolutely terrifying. I do not exaggerate when I say it came close to killing me. But hidden secrets can never be healed, and there is no freedom comparable to living in the light. There are burdens we were never meant to carry alone.

I’ve been on the receiving end of the prickliness when I ventured too close to someone who did not wish to be known, who feared what I might discover. I’ve experienced what it’s like when others lash out in fear and panic because a secret has been exposed. So now I know both sides, and I understand.

Until recent years, I had no idea what true freedom was. I was in survival mode, always feeling as if I were on the brink of chaos, barely holding things together. My life was a carefully erected house of cards that might fall down at any moment, and I couldn’t let anyone know. The fear of exposure — even exposure of some of my more trivial flaws and failings — was crippling. The worst is that this didn’t just effect me. I raised six beautiful, wonderful, amazing children in a climate polluted by my fear, isolation, and secrecy. By the grace of God, they are now much stronger and healthier than I could have ever hoped.

The enemy of our soul hates freedom. He hates the light. Stay in the dark! he urges us. Don’t let them see who you really are! Don’t even admit to yourself how desperate your situation is. Deny. Minimize. Hide. Cover up. Isolate. Live in secrecy. Get angry at anyone who refuses to play along. Break relationships with those who care for you and try to help. Live in fear!

That house of cards? Trust me, once you start walking in freedom and truth, you won’t ever miss what you were once so desperately protecting. Experiencing true healing is more than worth the temporary pain of bringing shameful, dark, or painful secrets out into the light.

Walk in the light. It’s absolutely beautiful out here!

The director and the actress

As I posted before, I usually don’t write allegories. But then one came along and pretty much wrote itself. Every now and then, I’d re-read it, maybe tweaking a word or sentence here or there. I’d think, “I really should add a part where the actress talks with the director.” And that’s as far as it got until recently.

I hope it means something and is a blessing to someone else besides me.

Of course none of this will make any sense whatsoever unless you start reading here.

The director looked across the table at the actress and smiled. He had such high hopes for her — and for the actor, especially now that he’d begun to get through to him — and he was looking forward to finally being able to tell her of some of his plans.

She smiled back. It had been a year since the actor had begun to have his change in heart about her, but that didn’t really explain the dramatic growth she had gone through in that time.

“This has been my best year ever!” she enthused, as if reading the director’s mind. They began reminiscing together.

“What made the biggest difference for you?” he asked, fully knowing the answer, but never growing tired of hearing her tell of it. He loved how her eyes lit up, how excitement, joy, and wonder filled her voice.

“It was…well, everything you said to me that day that I came into your office, wanting to quit,” she began.

He would never forget that day. She was discouraged, frustrated, hurt, angry, at the end of herself. He had listened patiently as she poured out all her feelings, until she dissolved into desperate tears. “I can’t do this anymore,” she had finally managed to choke out. “I’m tired of failing. It’s hopeless. I’m hopeless. I can’t go on like this.”

He had found himself telling her the most hope-filled story that he knew. “Remember, I was friends with your parents, and I was there when you were born,” he said, “I got to hold you right away. I loved you then. I held you close and whispered a secret in your ear and someday, when the time is right, I’ll tell you what it is. On that day, I also told you what your real name is, the one you were meant to have from the beginning of time, the one you will not hear again until you are ready.”

When he had said this to her, she had wiped away her tears and looked at him as if he was crazy.

So he reminded her of their history together, the parts she could remember, and even some parts she had forgotten. He reminded her, over and over again, that he had always loved her as a father and a friend.

“Your problem,” he told her, “is that you don’t believe that. You don’t believe me. You’d rather listen to the actor, even though he will never love you the way I do and, all too often, he does not even speak for me. When will you realize that? When will you seek my approval more than his?”

Those final words had stung her. She had protested and argued, and then dissolved yet again in frustrated tears. Finally she had walked out.

“That was the turning point,” she said now. “Once I sat myself down and thought about everything you told me, all the things you reminded me — it all made me realize that you knew me longer and better than the actor did — and that you love me more than anyone else ever will. Plus…well, you’re the director, and he isn’t.” She flashed a relieved grin at that last sentence. “That’s why I came back.”

Now he looked at her more seriously. “So you finally believe that I love you and want what’s best for you, right?”

She nodded. “Of course! You’ve proven that time and time again but I was too blind to notice! You’ve always been there, my one constant, my most loyal friend. I’ve lost count of how many times you rescued me…how many second chances you gave me…how many times you let me start over…how many crises you helped me through. You’ve changed my life.” She paused for emphasis. “Now I think I really do believe that you love me as much as you say you do.”

“You trust me.” He said it as a statement of fact, calmly. She nodded again, but she looked slightly apprehensive, wondering if she was about to be tested.

“I have a new script,” he announced simply.

She looked excited. “Really? Tell me about it!”

“It’s the kind of complex, demanding role that you were born to play. It’s tailor-made for you, but it will also be extremely challenging. Extremely.”

“What about the actor? Is he in it?”

“Oh, you’ll still both be playing your same basic roles, except I’m developing your character much more fully than before, and expanding your part in the script a lot. Focus on your role and let me worry about the actor. The changes in the new script will require your utmost concentration, and you and I will have to work together more closely than ever before.”

“Great!” she said.

“One more thing…the new script also requires that you dance.”

“Dance? The actor hates dancing! He will never agree to it.”

“No, not that kind of dancing. You won’t need a partner for the dances I want you to perform.”

“But…but…” Tears filled her eyes and she bit her lip. “What about my leg? I can’t dance. You know that. I’ll stumble and…and…I’ll fall down. Besides, who wants to see a cripple like me try to dance?”

“I’ve choreographed the dances, and I’ve taken your leg into consideration. I will teach you myself. Trust me: you will dance more beautifully than you can possibly imagine, even if it feels awkward to you. Are you forgetting that I’m also a doctor — the very one who attended your birth and took care of you after your accident? The dances I’ve created for you are therapeutic and healing — they will strengthen and restore your leg. Eventually your limp will disappear.”

She looked incredulous. “Seriously? You mean that?”

“Of course.”

“I never dreamed I would ever dance…” she whispered in amazement, as if afraid to speak the words aloud.

“That’s not all,” the director said. “The script I’ve been writing — it’s based on the stories you used to write as a little girl, and the stories I used to tell you. It’s based on your fondest hopes and dreams, the ones you’ve long given up, even forgotten. I remember them all, every desire of your little girl heart and, in the script I always meant for you, they all come true. Well, except for some of the silly or dangerous ones.” He smiled. “But the good ones all come true.”

Her tears flowed freely. “But…why?”

“Because it’s the role you were meant to play all your life.” He paused to let the words sink in. “You just weren’t ready before now. I think that now, finally, you truly want those things again — all those long ago hopes and dreams — more than you want anything else.”

She sat there in stunned silence, trying to process it all. Finally she spoke, “So, despite everything, all my failings, all the ways I’ve messed up and disappointed you, I get to play my dream role? That doesn’t make sense.”

“Yes, it does,” he countered gently, “if you remember how much I love you.”

“But what about the actor? Does he get his dream role too?”

“Leave him to me. After all, I love him too, far more than you ever will. But your role — this new script — is far less about him than it is about you. Promise me one thing: always look in my eyes instead of his, and never forget that I am the director, not him. He’s just another actor, like you, and he has his own script.”

He paused and grew almost stern. “I have to caution you about something. You finally stopped believing his criticisms and stopped veering off the script in reaction to him — right about the time he was becoming less negative and critical. But now he could pose an even greater danger to you, if you become used to and dependent on his kindness and praise. You’ve longed for him to approve of your performance so much that I’m afraid his positive words might have more power over you than his negative ones did, and you might become willing to do almost anything for them to continue. You must never forget that he is not the director. My approval must matter far more than his. Look to me only.”

She nodded.

“Always, always act as if I’m your only audience.”

She nodded again, and he thought she had never looked more beautiful and more strong. He thought her face could have lit up the darkest room. “This is amazing…too good to be true…I must be the luckiest actress alive!” she burst out.

“I think it’s time.” he said abruptly, standing up.

“Time? Time for what?”

“This.” He beckoned her to stand and, leaning down towards her, spoke softly in her ear. “It’s time you finally heard what I whispered to you so long ago, on the day you were born. And, after you hear it, you won’t just dance. You’ll fly!”

“Fly?”

He didn’t answer, didn’t explain. Instead, he whispered a sentence, the secret he had told her the day she was born…words she hadn’t realized that she had longed to hear all her life, words that explained everything, words that set her free, words that frightened and exhilarated her, words that were both healing and challenging, soothing and provocative. It was as if she was hearing his voice, his real voice, for the very first time.

She gasped. Tears flowed. And she threw back her head and laughed. That’s how powerful his few, seemingly simple words were. What he spoke wasn’t just a statement — the truest words she had ever heard — but a glorious invitation.

He was calling her forth into her destiny.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes, yes — ” the words tumbled out in enthusiastic agreement to the new script, to the director being her audience of one, to everything he wanted her to be, and to everything he would help her become.

In return, he held her closer, in a fatherly embrace…and spoke her name: her name he had whispered to her at birth, her real name, her beautiful, beautiful name that no one else but them had ever heard.

This time she shouted — shouted loud — with joy, throwing back her head as if she wanted the heavens above to hear her. She lifted her hands high in the air and shouted with triumphant eagerness, “YES!!”

And then she danced.

Why I changed my mind about the confederate flag

I was going to stay out of this whole hooplah. It hits close to home, and I didn’t want to offend people that I love and care for on either side of the debate. At the same time, I decided I should, at the very least, show respect to both sides by listening. I read articles online. I watched, while it was being live-streamed, the rally held recently in South Carolina, demanding that the flag be removed from the state capital. I realized that I had never really listened so carefully before, and that I had only heard misrepresentations of the “anti-flag” arguments.

After that, I thought I understood. Now I realize that, because of the huge holes in my education — especially about the Civil War — I really didn’t understand the half of it. It was time for me to hear from the leaders and founders of the Confederacy, rather than from its modern-day spokespeople. It was time that I allowed history to speak for itself.

From the “Corner-stone” Speech delivered by Alexander H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, in Savannah, Georgia on March 21, 1861:

 The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

I felt it only proper to quote in its context the part that was enough to convince me:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not proud of that.

When people whose opinions shouldn’t matter so much tear us down | Monday Motivation 

I wrote this to myself over a year ago. Here’s hoping it will be an encouragement to someone else.

Chase God. He made you and He wants you. Just because He thinks you’re fearfully and wondrously made doesn’t mean sinful humans (e.g., everybody on earth) will agree. Lots of people think you suck. So what? In Heaven, it won’t matter. Don’t worry about them; they are His responsibility. Don’t worry about what they think about you. Their opinion is so flawed, ignorant, and inconsequential, that it is meaningless. Remember that: meaningless.

They do not know you. They do not define you. They are hell-bound sinners, dying for grace, just like you. You aren’t a step-child. They aren’t ahead of you in line. They can’t make Jesus love you less. 

He wants your extravagant worship. They aren’t capable of that. Because they think they haven’t been forgiven much. But you know. Pour it out; don’t be afraid of wasting anything…give…pour…toss it all at Jesus’ feet…tears and blood and brokenness and beautiful scars…don’t be afraid to be scandalous because His grace is scandalous

They will never get it. Not until they see Jesus face to face, and then…don’t envy them those first moments.

When you see Him, it’s doubtful you’ll need a smackdown. Keep it that way. Look forward to running into the Throne Room and jumping into Abba Father’s lap, but don’t take it for granted.

You have beautiful scars. You are a redemption story. You know reconciliation first-hand. Don’t forget that. Never forget that. Rejoice. Celebrate. Until He comes. Don’t expect them to do it. Do it…and celebrate. Celebrate — with wild abandon…with extravagance…with every breath…

Even though some days I’m still not so sure about not needing that heavenly smackdown…