For the first time in my life, I can clearly understand something that baffled my naïve, younger self: how Christians can leave the church and deny the faith of their youth. I am undeniably at a crossroads in my journey. I do not deny the existence of a higher power, yet I can’t reconcile the incongruencies of the tenets of my childhood faith with the realities of my adult experience.
Nothing makes sense anymore. Well, actually that’s not entirely true. The most sense I’ve been able to make of matters of the spiritual realm have been presented through the teachings of Bob Hamp. His perspectives of freedom and the correlation between the natural world and the supernatural world make more sense than anything I ever heard in the churches in which I grew up. Honestly, it’s probably what’s keeping me somewhat grounded in this messy phase of deconstruction—though it was Hamp’s books that piqued my curiosity and led to this process of deconstruction, reconstruction, and transformation.
Tearing down the walls of your belief system is not a neat and clean operation. No, it is painful and unsettling.
…but if you are still there, you’re going to have to let me know.
Everything I learned as a child and adolescent about the nature of God was framed in such a way that I internalized two fundamental beliefs from which almost every point of contention in my belief systems stems (if not every point of contention—I’m still examining this by way of flow charts and timelines because that’s the way my brain works):
1. You must check all the boxes of the denominational code to please God and be a “real Christian” (i.e. church attendance, baptism, abstaining from all “sinful, fleshly desires” including but not limited to alcohol in any form, music other than traditional hymns or without a CCM endorsement, dancing, premarital sex, immodest dress [this applies to females only, apparently, as the most-cited offenses are low cut tops and short skirts] are just of few of the rules that may be communicated either covertly or overtly)
2. You are God’s child. He is your Father.
This one is great news for anyone who has a stable, secure, loving relationship with his/her father. I am not that girl. Never have been. For me, this tenet, though meant to comfort and encourage, tells me I am unlovable, unworthy, and unimportant. It tells me that I have to work harder to earn God’s love—or even gain his attention. Whereas other people know what it’s like to have their father’s eyes light up when they are present, I know what it’s like to be ignored and treated as an inconvenience for merely existing. Rather than crawling into my daddy’s lap, I walk on eggshells, tiptoeing past lest I draw attention to myself and make my presence known.
I have no idea what a good father is.
After picking up various translations of the bible over the past year or so and being so triggered by the fundamental evangelical biases my brain holds toward scriptures, I’ve concluded that, if God truly pursues me, he’s going to have to speak to me without me opening my bible.
Plant your truth in my heart so that it outgrows the institutionalized tenets of man-made religion. Make it simple, make it plain.
There is a certain risk involved in deconstructing one’s faith to rebuild it in a new and stronger way. You risk being misunderstood, accused of heresy, and otherwise shunned. You risk hurting the feelings of those closely associated to your own story. Committing to a deep-dive expedition of sorting through the roots of your belief system guarantees discomfort and some degree of conflict. As the beloved, classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, reflects, becoming real is risky, harrowing, and often lonely, yet enormously rewarding:
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
Growing up in a relatively unstable and dysfunctional home required me to learn some unhealthy coping and survival skills. Sure, things looked okay on the outside because we learned to mask the uglier facets, but we were not a happy family. There were moments, of course, especially in my younger years when we managed to complete a family activity in relative peace. Yet, for as long as I can remember, there was an underlying current of tension, an expectation that the lid would blow at any moment without warning—and it grew increasingly heavier as the years passed. It wasn’t until my teenage years, when my sister and I referred to our father as “the man who lives in our house” (because he was physically present, but emotionally distant) that I began to realize this wasn’t normal.
Looking back, I can see how many of my behaviors and thought patterns developed as coping mechanisms and self-preservation tactics. Only recently have I learned that some of the things I experienced actually fall under the umbrella of trauma—including psychological, emotional, and spiritual abuse.
I know those are weighty admissions.
Believe me when I say I’m aware of their implications. But I’m tired of minimizing my experience to make others look better; I’m tired of remaining silent to keep the peace. It wasn’t my responsibility to do so as a child…but I did. As I work on healing and re-parenting my younger self, the best gift I can give her is to let her have her voice back.
In the past ten months, I’ve begun to realize just how much growing up not only in evangelical Christianity itself, but also during the height of the evangelical purity culture movement has informed my views of myself, the world, and the nature of God. While seeking growth and a deeper understanding of who I am, I hold a tangled ball of readily-accepted lies, wounds, and assumptions that formed from early childhood forward.
Not everything I learned was bad—and I believe most (emphasis on most) people who were responsible for teaching and guiding me did not have motives to harm. Many of them were merely passing on the tradition of the faith culture they themselves were fed. The problem, though, is that going against the grain or questioning the authority of those in leadership roles is highly discouraged and, therefore, taboo.
Well, I’m questioning.
And it isn’t a tidy little Q&A panel with answers handed out in neatly packaged boxes. No, this feels like a throw-everything-you-know-in-a-dumpster-douse-with-gasoline-light-a-match-and-toss-it-in season. You know how people describe working through issues as peeling the layers of an onion? This feels more like hacking the onion to death and hoping for the best.
Even in nature, death precedes growth—seeds must die before trees grow; seasons must rotate through fall and winter before the bounty of spring and summer. Pearls begin as an irritant inside an oyster’s shell. The process of change and discomfort is necessary for transformation and beauty to be birthed. It’s a healthy, natural process to wrestle through the beliefs, patterns, and circumstances that have irritated the human soul to find the core of one’s true identity without merely accepting Sunday School answers at face value.
I hope that my readers—both those who have known me my whole life and those who have known me only briefly in person/this virtual space can respect and honor my perspectives. We certainly don’t have to agree in order to honor one another’s stories. You don’t get to sit in the cheap seats and tell me I’m doing it wrong “if you aren’t in the arena getting your [butt] kicked” too, as Brené Brown says. Because I process so much of my inner life through writing and because a lot (though not all) of that happens on this platform, I need to make this clear: I’m not seeking to cast blame on any particular individuals but rather to share MY experiences from MY perspective as well as the culminating effects of those things. I’ve spent too much of my life suppressing my own emotions, thoughts, and beliefs because I worried about what everyone else would think.
Brené also says, “You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”
Have you ever suddenly found yourself deconstructing your faith and questioning your beliefs about almost everything? Sifting through the fundamentals by which you were raised? Picking apart the rote rituals and rules of a particular denomination? Stripping your internal structures to the bare bones so that you might begin to rebuild a sturdier, stronger structure in its place?
For lack of a better term, I’m referring to it as an awakening.
An awakening to different perspectives, broader definitions, and deeper understanding. An awakening that demands exploration, open-mindedness, and honesty. An awakening that requires examination of past wounds, current traps, and future possibilities–both welcome and unwelcome. An awakening that brings great healing, painful disappointments, and ultimate freedom.
It’s not a pretty or pleasant process; yet, it is a natural and necessary process for deep-rooted growth. And it’s where I find myself now.
I wrote this poem (a term loosely employed) as a metaphor for the complex emotions I have felt during this journey. So, please enjoy this piece as I struggle through some big, uncomfortable questions about life, faith, God, religion, church, and the dark side of purity culture. *begin sarcasm font*This is so much fun.*end sarcasm font*
Bait and Switch
I learned to swim in these waters.
They felt safe back then,
drifting along with the current,
in an ocean with no end.
The warnings were clear:
keep inside the tight boundaries
lest my heart and mind
I blindly obeyed–
mostly for fear
of not checking the boxes;
thus, I drank the kool-aid.
Many years later, I coasted the sea
in waters much further, much further away
where I begin to just think–maybe there’s a different,
a more freedom-filled way.
I swam deeper still into my new home,
though it wasn’t all easy
I had more room to explore and to roam.
Until one day, I saw
with a new pair of eyes
what I believed
was built on man’s tries.
Out of nowhere, it came–
the fog lifted high;
blindsided by pain
I wanted to cry.
I’ve been robbed?
I’ve been cheated?
I’ve been lied to?
Now, I realize
what’s been stolen
is my identity.
Numb to the point
buried deep in my flesh,
my heart and my mind
have agreed to disjoint.
Not feeling is easier
than facing the facts.
Yet now that I know,
I can’t sit back and not act.
The sharp taste of steel-
of blood and of shame
to the brim, my mouth fills
as my soul is inflamed.
I’ve been robbed.
I’ve been cheated.
I’ve been lied to.
Far above me they sat
in their suits and their ties
and threw out the sinkers
filled with hopeless white lies.
I swallowed the bait
of a pure, snow white life
that would end at the altar,
making me the good wife.
Now, twenty years on-God, that stings just to say,
I have kept my end of the bargain
Only to find they were blindly leading my heart away,
with babbling, fear-based jargon.
The ring on my finger,
the noose that would bind me.
The pledge penned by my hand,
the soul-wound that would linger.
So many years wasted,
caught on the line.
I followed the rules,
and look where it got me–
broken and alone.
Still caught on the line,
now tasked with a chore
of untangling myself
to find my true core.
The waters I swam in
no longer feel safe.
Even if I break free,
will the scars always chafe?
These are the questions
my soul entertains
as, slowly, I feel
the hook’s grip
start to loosen;
The #churchtoo movement is attracting a lot of attention these days. Like many others, I have my own story of spiritual abuse in the church. In recent years, I’ve recognized it as such and begun to talk and write about it. Yet, as strongly as I feel that these stories need to be brought into the light, I’ve been cautious in sharing because I am grateful for many aspects of growing up in the church. I just wish the adults who helped shape beliefs had known better so they could have taught me better.
I came across this article from Josh Harris this morning; it struck a nerve and lit a fire that needed to be channeled into words. In 2003, Harris released a book that spread like wildfire through the evangelical church: I Kissed Dating Goodbye. It was shoved into the hands of adolescents throughout the Bible belt as an added safety measure against “sinful behavior.” Rather than offering practical support to almost-adults navigating opposite-sex relationships, youth leaders and parents touted this book as a manual for purity.
As a teenager who grew up in the Southern & Independent Baptist church in the late 90s/early 2000s, I was taught (and bought into–hook, line, and sinker) this whole “dating is wrong” worldview. I read this book and Harris’ follow-up book, Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship (a rather convenient amendment to his original stance once he began dating but needed a more acceptable term). The first research essay I wrote for a college English class argued the necessity of casting aside dating and committing to serious courtship with marriage as the goal. (I cringe at the thought of my naivete, but it is true that you don’t know what you don’t know.)
As a “good, evangelical Christian girl” my sense of self-worth was entirely tied to “guarding my heart,” “remaining pure,” and “waiting for the right one,” and “living with my parents until I was married.” (How, exactly, does that happen when you aren’t allowed to find “the one?” This still baffles me.) Rather than learning to live out my God-given identity as a woman, the messages I heard from every authority figure pointed back to a checklist of items I needed to adhere to in order for God to magically give me the desires of my heart.
They weren’t harmful suggestions in and of themselves, but they were presented as a rule book wherein God kept track of my behavior as a measurement of my faithfulness. If I didn’t follow the rules, I didn’t deserve good things.
At 34 years old, I’ve never dated (except for that one hilariously bad blind date when I was 22-ish), I’ve never been kissed (did anyone else hate that movie?), never slept around (or with anyone at all for that matter), never this, never that. I wore the TLW ring (the “one ring” of the evangelical church.) Side note: none of the guys in my youth groups had TLW rings. Hmm.
Why would I put this in print for all the world to see? Why would I share these intimate, vulnerable details of my life?
Because I know I’m not the only person who has considered herself unworthy, unlovable, rejected, and hopeless because she was fed the rhetoric of kissing dating goodbye. (And let’s not even touch the notion that girls/women were/are considered responsible for the way a boy/man conducts himself. Was I at fault when the youth leader who was a handful of years older than me put me in a headlock, taunting and laughing as I struggled to get loose as my peers watched? He lorded his perceived superiority over me like a trophy. You can’t wipe away the damage of a scenario like that from the heart, mind and, soul of a 17-year-old girl.)
It’s instances like these that have me reconsidering my belief system from the ground up, un-learning the “truths” that aren’t actually true and re-learning what is. The reality is that I, like many others, have experienced abuse at the hands of the church. Reconciling those past hurts with who I am today is hard but necessary work as I heal and become the person I was created and redeemed to be.
I still don’t have the “desires of my heart” in this area of my life. Maybe I never will.
And it’s only been the last six months or so that I’ve allowed myself to admit that this skewed thinking has caused a significant accumulation of emotional and spiritual damage.
I’m wrestling with the implications of how this viewpoint has driven deep-rooted lies about the character of God into my soul; it has caused me to believe that my singleness has made me less-than.
I don’t have any solid answers or solutions of how to reconcile my past beliefs with the truth of my identity other than the slow process of allowing God to re-parent my heart in this area.
I just wish I could tell 16-year-old me that she’s a human and that God placed those desires to be loved, accepted, pursued, and protected in her DNA. She’s not weak; she’s stronger than she knows.
And he’s not hovering over her with a checklist of her successes at following the good girl rules.
I am utterly delighted to welcome my friend Jennifer Dukes Lee as a guest in this space today as she shares about control and surrender. I had the pleasure of meeting Jennifer on the Epic Book Tour last year. She welcomed Anna and me into her home among the cornfields of rural Iowa with grace and friendship. Today she is delivering her third book baby, It’s All Under Control, into the world. An early copy arrived on my doorstep in May and I have been ruminating on it since. It is simultaneously the most comforting and most challenging book I’ve read this year. I’ll write my own post about it soon, but for now, here’s Jennifer. (Be sure to stick around at the end for a fun giveaway from Tyndale!)
Everything is Under Control (I Thought)
If you asked me five years ago, I naively would have told you that I didn’t struggle with control. I mean, seriously— as long as everything went exactly the way I hoped, I was totally flexible.
It’s not that I wanted to control other people. Mostly, I wanted to control myself. If I ever had high expectations of anyone, it was of me. I wanted to present the self-assured, together version of my whole being. Which means I craved control over my face, my emotions, my body, my food, my words, my house, my schedule, my yard, my future.
My preference was a tidy, predictable, safe life where no one got hurt, where my kids remained in one piece, where there was no pain for anyone ever again, amen. I said I trusted God but had reached the point where I realized I actually didn’t. As a Jesus girl, this shocked me.
An Empty Tank
Clearly, my old systems of coping weren’t working: My desire to obsessively orchestrate my whole life was burning me out.
As a mom, I heard myself snapping at my kids. As a ministry leader, I knew that I was functioning within my call, but I didn’t feel fulfilled. I was tired, even after a regular night’s sleep. And I found myself zoning out during conversations with my husband, because I was mentally making lists of everything I needed to get done.
In short, I ran out of gas.
Maybe the empty tank was God’s way of bringing me to a dead stop, so I would finally pay attention. It worked. God got my attention, and maybe he’s trying to get yours too.
Imagine that it’s you who’s run out of gas. Maybe that doesn’t take much imagining after all, because like me, you’re tired of trying to hold it together. You want to keep it all under control, but things aren’t working out the way you planned.
When you and I began to follow Jesus, we relinquished control over our lives. But because we suffer from the chronic condition known as being human we constantly try to steal that control back.
CEO of Everything
My wake-up call happened when I realized that the battle for my heart was regularly being fought inside the tiny squares of my to-do list.
I began to ask myself this question: “What are the things that, if they were taken away, would shatter the identity I have created?”
Was it my work? My calendar? My efforts to shield my children from pain and suffering? This urge to always say yes?
For me, the answer was: “All of the above.” I was trying to be the CEO of everything.
Jesus delivered a sobering reminder: You will never know if you can trust Me if you don’t give Me the chance to prove it.
I recommitted myself to a life surrendered to Jesus’ plans for my life. But something felt … off … when I considered what surrender truly meant.
I accidentally bought into a weird idea that surrendered living meant mostly that I needed to “do less.” Yet that was unrealistic because so much of life clearly couldn’t be opted out of. People depended on me. I had kids to feed. A house to manage. Books to write.
Most people can’t simply fire their lives and move on when it gets too chaotic. We can’t stop managing a household, cancel all our appointments, and spend the rest of our days on a floatie in the middle of a lake.
Here’s what I began to learn: Surrendered living is much more than “doing less.” It’s being more of who God created us to be.
Yes, I totally need more chill in my life, and maybe you do too. But here’s the full truth about surrender:
Surrender doesn’t come with some unrealistic demand that you are suddenly going to stop being the incredibly brave and brilliant woman that you are. Real surrender appreciates God’s remarkable design in you.
We Need Women Like You
Do you know what a wonder you are?
You don’t settle. You are the sort of woman we can count on to meet a work deadline, organize a food drive, take in the neighbors’ kids during an emergency, drive your coworker to chemo, counsel a friend at 3 a.m. by text message, keep track of everyone’s appointments, and make sure we’re all wearing seat belts before you drive us on the three-day adventure that you single-handedly arranged.
We need you. We need take-charge, charitable women like you as doctors and nurses in operating rooms where details like “proper disinfectant” matter. Let me tell it to you straight: If you have an inner control freak, I’m hoping you’ll let her bust loose like nobody’s business if someone I love is on your operating table. We need responsible women like you to control all the bleeding.
We also need you in charge of schools, nonprofits, and Fortune 500 companies. We need rock-star women like you to show us that surrender isn’t “lie down in a pile.” It’s “march forward like a warrior.” Sometimes surrendering to God will require you to do the hardest work you’ve ever done in your life: take in another foster child, fight for your marriage, kick cancer where the sun don’t shine, or refuse to capitulate to the persistent drubbing from Satan.
Girl, listen up. We count on you. You are a woman fervently devoted to God’s calling on your life, not only in your work but also in your relationships.
Of course, as Carrie Underwood will sing to you, Jesus is definitely taking the wheel. But make no mistake: There are times when he’s going to ask you to do some driving.
It’s All Under Control
Don’t think of Jesus as your chauffeur; he is more like your driver’s ed coach. He’s there to teach you His rules of the road. Friend, do not fear the wheel. You have been equipped to drive—and Jesus is beside you when you steer the wrong way. Hopefully He will pull the emergency brake if necessary, and I’ve personally put in a request for roads lined with padded walls.
The windows are rolled down, the music is cranked, the tank is full, and there’s something that looks like freedom on the horizon.
Out on the open road, may you feel the reassuring love of Jesus. On this journey toward surrender, you’ll discover that, at last, it really is all under control: God’s.
Jennifer Dukes Lee is the wife of an Iowa farmer, mom to two girls, and an author. She loves queso and singing too loudly to songs with great harmony. Once upon a time, she didn’t believe in Jesus. Now, He’s her CEO. Jennifer’s newest book, It’s All Under Control, and a companion Bible study, are releasing today! This is a book for every woman who is hanging on tight and trying to get each day right―yet finding that life often feels out of control and chaotic.
Adapted from It’s All under Control: A Journey of Letting Go, Hanging On, and Finding a Peace You Almost Forgot Was Possible by Jennifer Dukes Lee, releasing this fall from Tyndale House Publishers.
I’m so excited to be a part of a huge giveaway to celebrate the release of It’s All Under Control. Jennifer and her publisher, Tyndale, are giving away 50 copies of the book in celebration of its release! Enter below to win. Giveaway ends September 30. Winners will be notified by Tyndale House Publishers. Email subscribers can click here to enter.
The church of the caterpillars sneaked up on me today.
This morning, my heart was still tender from an incident yesterday that left me feeling unseen, unknown, and unworthy. I attempted to stuff it down and move on. Realizing that it is a trigger point that has the tendency to send me into a downward swirl, I tried to push it away without examining it too closely.
But this lie was not going down without a fight.
An incident occurred yesterday that left me feeling overlooked and unrecognized. On the heels of that incident, I’d just submitted a guest blog post on the topic of speaking the truth of who we are louder than the lies that we are only as good as our shortcomings and failures. In addition to submitting that post, I’d also taken another flying leap in another area of my writing career. Both of these acts have me experiencing a bit of a vulnerability hangover.
Letter Four offers encouragement for those living in chaos: the aftermath of a traumatic event, such as a devastating diagnosis, for example. As someone who is living in the aftermath of the traumatic loss of a sibling, I found solace in her words. In this chapter, Reynolds discusses the process of metamorphosis in caterpillars and how their entire bodies liquefy into “protein soup” while they are snuggled inside the cocoon. As a child, she cut open a cocoon and found this phenomenon in progress. She writes,
“[…]when we get a close-up view of chaos[…]we begin to realize that big stages like “before cancer” and “after cancer” break down into specific days and hours that require miracles to survive[…]If it were possible to cut open a human soul during chaos, I think maybe this is what we would look like too. A casual observer staring into our mess couldn’t believe that we had ever been okay or that we would ever be okay again.” (75)
After more than two years of living in a high-alert state of just trying to get through each day, I am finally beginning to feel like I can breathe again. If someone had cut open my soul a few months ago, they would have found an unsightly mess, but that mess was the fuel that gave me the means to survive all those hard days. Nonetheless, the triggers still come, the anxiety still rises, and the depression still threatens to cloud my view.
But the “protein soup” still nourishes, too.
The Church of the Caterpillars
In the light of the blazing Texas sun this morning, a tiny movement in my peripheral vision caught my attention. From my chair, I squinted behind the lenses of my sunglasses to focus on the movement. Crawling along a blade of grass’ tip was a caterpillar, making his way across the surface with tiny, methodical movements. His body scooted in a fluid wave of motion. A few inches away, another movement caught my eye…then another. I leaned forward, counting each new caterpillar that caught my eye.
I threw a towel on the ground (silently apologizing to any caterpillars that may be underneath) and laid on my stomach to get a closer view.
Everywhere I looked within a few feet from my position, I saw caterpillars maneuvering among the grass. Some were tiny, no bigger than the tip of my fingernail. Others were plumper, a few inches long. There were dozens of them. I lay there watching them, mesmerized. For a split second it was quiet; I could hear the faint sound of them chewing on the grass, gathering nourishment for the metamorphosis ahead.
My perspective of oblivion to the fact that the caterpillars were partaking in an all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch while I sat on the porch had morphed into one of seeing these little creatures everywhere I looked. In the span of a few short minutes, my perspective had changed.
These caterpillars were tiny. They were minding their own business, doing what they were created to do in preparation for transforming into their full purpose. And they were seen. They were observed; they were acknowledged; the were considered worthy of notice.
If I appreciate the work of a caterpillar enough to write about them, how much more does my Creator appreciate the work I am doing during my own transformation process?
Enough to send the church of the caterpillars in the sanctuary of His creation.
Enough to remind me in whatever way it takes that I am sustained by His “protein soup.”
I have no recollection of a sparkle in your eye when you looked at me.
I needed a father whose eyes lit up when I entered his line of sight.
I never felt treasured.
I needed a father who considered me a gift.
My worth was diminished by everything you loved more.
I needed a father who loved me most.
Your attention was what I craved, but even throwing myself into your hobbies wasn’t enough to gain that attention.
I needed a father whose affection I didn’t have to earn.
I wasn’t taught the value of a daughter.
I needed a father who showed me I was significant.
I felt threatened by you.
I needed a father who protected me.
I didn’t have permission to express my emotions and feelings without negative repercussions.
I needed a father who provided a safe place to explore my emotions.
I wasn’t known by you—my thoughts, interests, passions, and capabilities were overlooked.
I needed a father who saw me.
Father’s Day is not a day that I can celebrate with enthusiasm. Father’s Day is complicated. It is a stark reminder of the essential absence of a father figure in my life. Those of you who have known me a long time might be confused by that statement. Yes, my father was present in the home as I grew up, but he was absent in every other way. When I search my memory for instances that relay evidence of having a well-fathered heart, I come up empty.
After decades of ignoring the deep sadness and grief of not having the father I needed, those wounds are breaking through the surface of my heart, ripping open those tender spots that long to be healed. Currently, I am wrestling with the fathering heart of God. I’ve heard, all my life, that He is a Father to the fatherless, a good Father, a loving Father. Yet, when you grow up not only without a solid father figure, but also with a worldview shaped by the belief that a father is someone you have to tip-toe around lest you upset him, making a connection to the true Father-heart of God is difficult, at best.
Believing, deep in my heart, that I am a beloved daughter of the King is a challenge when my human understanding and experience tells me I am easily replaced and unwanted. Accepting that my heavenly Father wants nothing more than to spend time with me is unlikely when my experience tells me my presence is a bother. Knowing that I don’t have to work to earn the love of Father-God seems too good to be true when I feel unwanted.
All this is further complicated by the fact that I have a lot of unanswered questions about my sister’s death. Because how are you supposed to believe in a good Father when He’s allowed the person closest to you to die? It’s almost too much to bear.
For now, all I can do is push those questions aside as best I can and focus on solidifying my identity as a significant and irreplaceable daughter and God’s inherent character as a Father. Because until that belief is deeply rooted in my heart, mind, spirit, and soul, every other truth falls on deaf ears.
When I first began intentionally digging into this landmine of suppressed hurt, the Holy Spirit whispered a phrase to me:
“You were my daughter first.”
I’ve not fully unpacked the depth behind that statement yet, but I’m content to camp out there for a while.
I may not have the father I needed on this earth, but I’m clinging to the knowledge that my true Father is pursuing my heart, showing me how a Father loves His daughter one glimpse at a time until the deep knowledge of it replaces my experience with an earthly father. I’m counting on Him to re-Father the little girl inside me who needed a good father.
On Day 14, we left the Phoenix area with weary hearts and swollen eyes. I was exhausted in every way but determined to press on. After all, our itinerary for the day was sightseeing at the Grand Canyon. Our first stop was for copious amounts of caffeine.
Fully armed, we set out for the infamous hole in the ground, detouring through Sedona. I spent much of that stretch of the trip on the phone and responding to texts from friends who were checking in to see how I was holding up.
As we approached the national park, Anna proposed that we keep the shenanigans to a minimum.
I wasn’t prepared for the sight that awaited us. Pictures cannot do justice to the magnificence that is the Grand Canyon. It was breathtaking.
Much to my dismay, my camera battery died right after I took this picture of this California condor at the first outlook.
There was a definite heaviness on me that day, and although I was excited to see one of the Seven Wonders, I was also very subdued. Staring into the crevice that stretched for miles before me, my brain struggled to makes sense of the vastness of what my eyes were seeing while my heart wrestled with the reality of what was happening on the other side of the country. Neither scenario made any sense to me. Just as I couldn’t possible see the entirety of the canyon, nor could I comprehend the enormity of the loss I was facing. Directing my gaze on sections of the rock formations around me was the only way I could take in the sight; focusing my mind on the very next moment was the only way I could keep from falling apart completely.
Alongside the ache in my heart, I was able to dig up a little lightheartedness—especially when I ventured closer to the edge of the cliffs to get those more adventures camera angles.
If nothing else, Jess taught me how to take cool pictures. Anna, who has an acute fear of heights and drop-offs (as I was quickly learning), did not appreciate my forays toward the edge.
Who knows—maybe she was afraid I might try to pull a Thelma and Louise sans car in my distraught state? At any rate, she actually grabbed my arm and pulled me back toward the designated path at one point. (I wasn’t even close to the edge, y’all, but it made for some hilarious pictures.
When I walked on an outcrop and directed her to take my picture beside a tree, she moaned and groaned and whined. Then, I somehow convinced her to pose as I had. (Notice the death grip she’s got on that tree.)
Just before sunset, we turned around on the trail and began our trek back to the truck. These huge boulders sat just off the path, and as we approached, I handed my phone to Anna. I climbed atop the rocks (no easy feat for my short legs) and posed while she snapped away. Back on the ground, I scrolled through the pictures, gasping at the perfection of one of them in particular: my silhouette back lit by the waning sun, arms outstretched.
Having spent almost two decades as one of Jess’ main photography subjects, I’m kind of judgy when other people photograph me. (Sorry, it’s true. Being photographed by a sister who knows all your peculiarities about pictures ruins you for life.) But Anna had nailed it.
“Jess would be so proud of this picture!” I gushed.
When I posted the photo on Instagram later, I captioned it with the lyrics from Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.” Since then, I can’t see that picture without hearing the song in my head or hear the song without picturing this shot.
Like the book tour as a whole, Day 14 was both one of my favorite days and one of the hardest days; the pain and joy of that day are inextricably mingled. Holding the tension of both those emotions wrapped so tightly around this one memory is a task I struggle with daily. But the ability to write about it displays a small measure of healing, and for that I am grateful.
I’m tempted to let 2017 slip away quietly, to bid it farewell without the fanfare of a final blog post–because reflecting on all this year is and was and will be is a lot for a heart to handle.
(Just forty words in and already I feel the tears burning at the corners of my eyes.)
It was the worst best year I’ve ever experienced and trying to process all. the. things is overwhelming, razor-sharp, exhausting work. So, I’m just diving in to share an unedited glimpse of some of my highest highs and lowest lows of the year. This won’t be a cheery, tied-up-with-a-pretty-bow kind of post, but I hope my honesty meets you where you are, somehow–even if that means we sit in a heap of ashes and tears while remembering.
Between Thanksgiving 2016 and March 2017, I traveled back and forth between Texas and South Carolina a lot. My sister’s health was declining rapidly (damn you, cancer) and I was almost literally living with one foot in my native state and the other in the state I was trying to claim as my new home. Unsettled was the new normal I never asked for.
I’d had to quit my job in Texas in order to be so transient, and it was for the best, ultimately. It gave me the chance to spend some sweet last days at the beach with my sister and allowed for memories that gave me the strength to carry on through the rest of the year.
In January, I finished the first draft of my book manuscript. 55, 000 words in one document, ready to be edited and pitched to an agent. (One of those goals that hasn’t yet come to fruition.)
After two weeks of working furiously to map out a cross-country route and secure places to stay along the way, the #EpicBookTourTPD rolled out of town on April 1st. I was also leading my third launch team at this point (Jamie Sandefer’s Love You From Right Here).
Barely two weeks and four states in, I got the middle-of-the-night call no one wants to get (or make) while sleeping in a sketchy hotel on the Las Vegas strip. (I’m choosing to leave out a lot of details here, not only because this was and is a deeply personal period, but also because I don’t remember a lot of the two weeks that followed that call. It still feels like a nightmare to recall what I do remember.) I cried nonstop for at least three straight days, then tiny tears leaked out of the corner of my left eye for weeks after that. I stopped wearing eye makeup for the first time since I was thirteen. The last weekend of April, I flew from Salt Lake City to Greenville for her memorial service where I had the excruciating honor of eulogizing my little sister.
If it hadn’t been for the support of my closest friends who listened when I needed to yell or cry or talk about my sister, and the distraction of the book tour, I would have crawled into a hole this year. There were (and are still) occasions when I did crawl into a hole and had to be dragged out.
In the midst of the shattered mess of grief, I was given the gift of fulfilling a dream Jess and I had: a cross-country road trip. I knew, without a doubt, that she would kick my ass if I quit the book tour, so I grabbed her travel mascot–a green, plastic dinosaur named Migrating Monty–while in S.C. for the memorial service and flew back to Utah to rejoin Anna. Monty sat on the dashboard of the Epic Book Tour Mobile for the remainder of our trip, a constant reminder of my adventure-loving sister. I’ll never forget driving through the Colorado mountains the week after the memorial service when Hanson’s “I’ll Be With You In Your Dreams” started playing.
From April to August, Anna and I crisscrossed the U.S.A., covering 40 states, meeting hundreds (thousands?) of people, and driving a cumulative total of 23,461 miles.
In April, I was talked off the ledge of getting a grief tattoo in Vegas.
In May, we traveled from Colorado to New York and back to Texas. We saw Niagara Falls–the sightseeing highlight of the book tour. We got tattoos in Winona, Minnesota.
In June, we left Texas again and went east, traveling as far north as Pennsylvania. When we passed through the Carolinas, I had the opportunity to take Anna to my hometown to meet my people.
In July, we headed south to Florida and back to Texas before making a second trip to Utah, then coming home for two days before Anna headed to her birthplace in Mexico while I spent a few sweet days with my heart-friend, Kelli, in New Mexico to conclude the book tour.
Through August and most of September, I laid on the couch.
Seriously. After four months on the road, sleeping in a different place every few nights, and thousands of miles of sitting in a car–all while being in the shock stage of grief–left me entirely drained. I’d put my hand to the plow and did what I had to do. But once it came to an end, I turned inward, fast.
In late September, Anna threw me a lifeline, fished me out of the deep waters of depression, and offered a simple question: “If I make you an appointment, will you go?” (If you’ve read her book, you know what that question signified.) I said yes and she made the appointment for my first counseling session–something I knew I needed, but just the thought of beginning overwhelmed me.
October brought an opportunity to use skills I didn’t even know I had when Anna and I built a website and online course to disperse her expansive knowledge on leading launch teams. Turns out I’m pretty good at web design and have since helped design another website for a friend. Who knew?
November was a hard months for reasons I won’t disclose here, but it forced me to find my voice again. I flew to SC for a brief visit over Thanksgiving and cuddled my nieces, which is always good for my soul.
December began with a retreat I didn’t really want to attend, but I went anyway. And instead of pretending I was happy to be there, I gave myself the freedom to be real and let the other five women there know that I was struggling. Best decision ever. That weekend deserves it’s own post, so stay tuned.
My trip to S.C. for Christmas turned into a disaster from the moment I stepped in the Dallas airport until the time I boarded the plane back to Texas in Charlotte. An already hard holiday tipped the scales as everything that could have gone wrong did. Yes, there were some bright spots, but overall, it sucked.
So here we are. A few more hours of this year left.
I still have a lot to process, and I’m fully aware that it will be slow going.
Because of the way excitement and joy have been so entangled with grief and loss this year, I haven’t felt like I have permission to celebrate the good. And, honestly, that makes me angry. It’s not fair. What should have been the best year of my life–traveling the country, settling into a new home, discovering new talents, and working toward healing from old wounds–has been irrevocably robbed from me. And while I’m working on allowing myself the freedom to acknowledge the happy moments of 2017, they’re still greatly overshadowed by the broken pieces.
Life is full of wearying circumstances that we sometimes can’t find any understanding of why we’re faced with such pain. But there are other times when…we can eventually see that our journey has brought us full circle. Anna’s story is coming full circle with the publication of The Polygamist’s Daughter.
Let’s get right to it.
I got some fun mail yesterday:
After a full year of anxiously anticipating it, I received an advance copy of my friend Anna LeBaron’s book, The Polygamist’s Daughter, in the mail yesterday. I was literally jumping up and down and squealing. I haven’t yet found a way to put all my feelings about this book into words. But here, I’m going to try.
Anna’s book is a memoir of her childhood growing up in a violent, polygamist cult and how she escaped it at the tender age of thirteen. She tells of horrific events she witnessed and the hope of not only having lived through them, but also of finding healing as she grew into adulthood.
I’ve had the great privilege of witnessing the tail-end of Anna’s journey to publication a little more closely than others. I’ve sat with her through endless hours of edits and reminded her numerous times that her story matters. In some ways, I feel like this book contains chunks of my heart. (That is probably true for a lot of people who have met and lived life with Anna, though.)
When I was little—maybe seven or eight—I went through a phase of wanting to be a doctor or nurse—specifically, a “baby doctor or nurse.” It didn’t last long, but I’ve always remembered how obsessed I was with that train of thought. In the case of this book, I told Anna that I feel like a proud aunt over the birth of this “book baby.”
She replied that not only am I a proud aunt, but also a book doula. So, I guess maybe I’m a baby doctor/nurse of sorts, after all.
Life is full of wearying circumstances that we sometimes can’t find any understanding of why we’re faced with such pain. But there are other times when, if we walk the path long enough—and trust the process of navigating our way through the rocky terrain, the loss of directions, and the questioning of whether we’ll ever make it out of the valley—we can eventually see that our journey has brought us full circle.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that it brought us back to our starting point, but rather it has connected our beginning point to another beginning point…and so on. A circle, by virtue of its character, doesn’t have a beginning or end point; it flows fluidly together in a continuous line.
The stories of humanity have been interconnected since the beginning of time and continue to weave through and around every person on this planet. We will never really know how intertwined our stories are to one another; however, occasionally our stories intersect with another’s in such a way that it brings us full circle in some aspect of our lives.
There have been many times over the past two years when I’ve stared ahead at the rocky path and wondered where exactly this road was leading. Being lost and without direction isn’t something I struggle with as much these days, but it rears its head occasionally. There are still deep valleys that I must walk through. But I’m beginning to see the fluidity of the circuitous path I’ve been wandering the last few years.
Part of that journey has been intersected by the journey of this woman who I’ve quickly come to know as a heart-friend. (Anna’s name has appeared on this blog numerous times, partly because her encouragement has given me the courage to own my brave.) A month ago, the two of us attended a retreat (Splendid By The Sea) in coastal North Carolina. At the end of the retreat, circumstances allowed us to drive several hours inland together before we parted ways. As we drove, we marveled at the fact that we’d road-tripped to another Splendid retreat together just six months before. And here we were again.
A couple of hours later, we arrived at her hotel—the same one where we’d met just nine months before in the middle of Snowpocalypse 2016. We squealed a bit and laughed incredulously as we parked the car, darted inside the lobby, and took a quick selfie in approximately the same place we’d become internet-friends-turned-real-life-friends.
Once we were back in the car, I commented that we’d come full circle. The fluidity of the circle doesn’t stop there, because after all—it is a circle.
As the back cover copy on the advance copy says, “my father had thirteen wives and more than fifty children. My childhood was filled with terror, desperation, and confusion. I barely knew who my family really was. The life we led made my stomach ache…but I never said a word.”
The censor bars covering her six-year-old mouth and eyes on the book cover are a chilling representation of the horrors she saw and the secrets she was forced to keep.
She has found the freedom and courage to tell her story.
Anna has overcome the aftermath of a multitude of tragedy. It will always be a part of her story. She will always be the polygamist’s daughter, biologically.
But it does not define her.
What defines her is her hope, her joy, and her genuine desire to love those around her fiercely. She lavishes these things on everyone she meets and leaves a trail of light wherever she goes.
I’m so blessed to be alongside her on this journey. It has been both an eye-opening and inspiring experience for me.
If you’d like to know more about Anna and her book, please visit her website, www.AnnaLeBaron.com. The Polygamist’s Daughter officially releases March 21, 2017—check back here for my “official review” then!