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;
Perhaps you’ve slogged through, begging for relief.
The days have passed slowly in the minute-by-minute until you suddenly blink and wonder where they’ve gone.
The dark nights have lingered endlessly.
You’re surviving, clinging to the last shred of hope that it won’t always be this way.
Today marks the Winter Solstice.
The shortest day.
The darkest day.
The day that gives way to a little more light each day.
The first day of Winter.
I’m reminded of the C.S. Lewis quote in The Chronicles of Narnia when Mr. Tumnus explains the effects of the White Witch’s icy reign:
“Always winter and never Christmas.
And I wonder if, in the days before the birth of Jesus, Joseph and Mary experienced a season of winter in their hearts, minds, and spirits.
As they trekked from Nazareth to Bethlehem, were they not only physically tired, but also mentally, emotionally, spiritually weary from the journey they’d been on since the angel came to Mary with news of the impending birth?
Could they see the light at the end of the tunnel clearly or was their vision clouded with uncertainty?
Did they know Christmas—the true essence of Christmas—the Light of the World in the form of a baby—was just ahead?
Perhaps in the the cold grip of unsettling circumstances, you are wandering through the night, waiting, wondering, hoping for relief from the burden tucked inside you.
I saw the new Little Women movie last weekend. As a lifelong reader and writer who holds an English degree and adores the texts of 19th century American writers, I’m always wary of films based on books, but new versions of the classics take it to a whole new level of skepticism.
Here’s my short review: For a modern re-telling it was well done. No retelling of a classic will ever be perfect, especially for literary purists. Even the 1994 version with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon (which I love!) is set in the original period in which the book was written. This one wasn’t and I’m glad. Shakespeare’s works are woven into modern films and it was long past time that this one had a turn to connect with a new generation.
I missed the opening weekend of this film because I wasn’t feeling well. A couple weeks later, I searched for a local showing to no avail. It was nowhere to be found and internet searches revealed a host of less-than-generous reviews. My friend Madlin found it at a local discount theater and we jumped at the chance to see it in theaters, accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter. I’m sure the movie was pulled from theaters early because it’s still a very sweet story—something that is drowned out in our quest for action-packed, racy dramas even in young adult genres. Our culture wants salacious story lines and this one didn’t deliver that–thankfully. It held true to the classic themes you expect from the original novel. I loved it and I think it’s worth seeing (especially if you have tweens/teens).
Now, a deeper dive into my thoughts on the movie.
Louisa May Alcott’s timeless novel has been a favorite since I first read a condensed version, gifted to me by a family friend, around age 10. In college, it was a pivotal text in my favorite upper-level literature class, Dr. Thompson’s New England Writers. One of my favorite memories from the class was the day we formed a circle with our desks and discussed which character resonated most with ourselves. I’ll never forget the impassioned argument between two classmates when he spoiled a climactic plot point she didn’t know about yet. (Hint: it had to do with Beth.) She literally threw her book at him. It was hilarious.
I had the amazing opportunity of visiting the Alcott home where Louisa penned the novel loosely based on her life with her sisters in Concord, MA in August 2009. Last year, while on the Epic Book Tour, we found ourselves with a few free days while in the northeastern part of the country and I lobbied fast and hard to take Anna on a brief literary tour of the sites that enthralled me nearly a decade ago. Orchard House was at the top of our itinerary. I couldn’t wait to share the magic of the historic house with Anna. There’s just something about walking the halls of literary greats that makes my heart beat a little faster and my eyes light up a little brighter.
So, when I heard a new film version was to be released this year, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Little Women’s publication, I knew I was going to see it—regardless of whether I sat through it with squinted eyes and clenched teeth, worried it wouldn’t live up to the original work.
[Warning: spoilers ahead. If you’ve read the book, you already know the basic spoilers, but I’ll also give away specific scenes from this film. Proceed at your own risk.)
Walking into the theater, I braced myself to hate it. I hoped to walk away with at least one positive thread that would redeem whatever mess Hollywood made of my beloved characters.
I walked out with a tear-stained face, drenched sleeves, and a full yet aching heart.
My reaction, due in part to the experiences I brought to the viewing (known in literary theory as Reader Response), took me totally off guard.
Though I’ve watched the 1994 movie dozens of times since college and know the major plot points by heart, the last time I read the novel was in Dr. Thompson’s class ten years ago. Back then, I identified mostly with Meg’s character; she too was the oldest of four siblings, quiet and sweet, and her dreams were those expected of young women of the time—nothing brash or lofty. On the other hand, I related to Jo only in that she was a voracious reader and writer. That was where our similarities stopped—back then.
Because this new interpretation of the book is set in modern time, I saw Jo in a new light. With each scene, I realized how much Jo’s character resonated with me. I also realized just how much I’ve changed since I read Little Women in college. This dawning knowledge had me a little emotional even before the news of Beth’s illness was revealed in the movie.
In the book, Beth is struck by scarlet fever after visiting an immigrant family but in this version, she’s diagnosed with cancer. This is where my heart first started constricting and my breath shallower. Of course; why would they not give Beth cancer?
Jo is Beth’s closest sister in both the book and the film. In the movie, Jo returns home for the holidays after Beth’s diagnosis; Beth’s health has obviously deteriorated. The two sisters lie in bed together, talking. Jo apologizes for not visiting more often and Beth dissuades her guilt with the acknowledgement that Jo is pursuing her dreams in New York. At one point, Jo tells Beth, “You’re my person.” Meg has John; Amy has Laurie; Jo has Beth.
This is where I lost it completely. Just the day before I saw the movie, I thought to myself, “What happens when you lose your person? The one to whom you text your random thoughts? The one you test your questions about life with? The one you explore your identity with? The one who knows you best and calls you on your crap? The one whose memories you share the longest? The one you sold tadpoles from your swimming pool with? The one who was always up for exploration and random road trips to cheesy roadside attractions? The one who threw a funeral-themed graduation party when you were depressed by the end of your college years? What happens when that person is gone, and you lose the reflection of yourself through their eyes? What happens when you’re left flailing in their absence?
(Even now, I’m tying these words through tear-filled eyes.)
A few weeks ago, Anna returned from one of Bob Hamp’s training sessions and we were talking about attachment and how you develop your perception of yourself as a young child through the eyes of those closest to you. Ideally, this attachment comes through your parents, particularly the mother. I realized as we talked that my deepest perceptions of myself and my identity were tied closely with the way my sister saw me and shaped me. She probably knew I was more like Jo long before I realized it.
During Jo and Beth’s conversation in the same scene, Beth tells Jo she wants to see the ocean. The next scene shows Jo and Beth sitting on the sandy shore, gazing at the expanse of waves before them. Beth tells Jo to live her life for both of them, to “do all the things.” It is their last conversation; the next scene is that of Beth’s funeral.
By now, I was literally covering my mouth to keep the sobs from escaping. My head was pounding from the sheer force of keeping the emotion from erupting. I could barely see through the tears. My heart felt like it was being shattered into pieces all over again.
Madlin realized what was happening and told her daughter, who was sitting between us, to switch seats. She moved over and grabbed my hand as I sobbed through the next few scenes.
In February 2016, I flew to S.C. to spend a couple of weeks with Jess before the busy season of launching Anna’s book and the book tour ramped up. I flew into Greenville and then drove to the coast where Jess was doing treatments.
That weekend, Mom and my brother drove back to Greenville to take care of a few things and left Jess and I at the hotel. I was nervous because Jess’ health was not good and she required some assistance with her care. Namely, she had a port that had to be flushed each night and she couldn’t do it by herself (though she did try, stubborn sasshole that she was). Now, I’m not a fan of needles, but I was determined to do what I needed to do. And I did, though it was not without a lot of anxiety, a few ridiculous errors (there’s really no telling how much saline solution I shot onto the ceiling from the syringe trying to get the air bubbles out), a little humor, and a few frantic texts to #the4500 when I could not get the line flushed after many attempts.
But the moment I remember most from that weekend is sitting on the balcony overlooking the ocean. Jess longed to be on the beach with her toes in the sand, but she was too weak to get there so we settled for the balcony. We sat in the sun, talking about how my life had changed. She offered her best fashion and makeup advice to turn me from a “tired teacher to a professional business woman” for the book tour. I hinted at my misgivings about even going on the book tour, afraid to be even further away if something were to happen, wondering if I should just not go. She was quick to shoot that notion down. She told me in no uncertain terms that I could not pass up this opportunity to travel the country like we’d always dreamed of doing.
She told me I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and I was where I was supposed to be. Essentially, she told me to go do all the things she couldn’t.
So I went. A week later, we were back in Greenville. The night before my early morning flight back to Texas, I went to tell her goodbye. We talked for a few minutes, but it was late, and she was tired. As I left her room, I leaned against the doorjamb and said, “Bye, Little Buddy. I love you.” “Love you, too,” she returned quietly.
“…the strong sister and the feeble one, always together, as if they felt instinctively that a long separation was not far away. They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it; for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which is very hard to overcome.”
(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women p. 340)
As I closed the door, I felt a sense of finality. I wouldn’t realize until later that I knew in my spirit that this was the last time I would see her. It was February 19th. Eight weeks later, almost to the day, she was gone.
Grief is such a complex process. I probably should’ve realized that I was setting myself up for all the feelings by seeing this movie, but it truly blindsided me because of the modern setting.
One of the last scenes in the movie shows and angry Jo running, day after day, attempting to burn the negative energy of the grief that consumes her. At one point, Marmee runs up beside her and stops her.
Jo bursts, “How am I supposed to live like this? How long will it feel like this?”
Marmee replies, “Beth wanted you to do all the things. And that means you must feel all the feelings, too.”
For months after Jess died, I tried to suppress the emotions. The book tour made it easy to avoid confronting my emotions because it kept me busy and distracted—something I’m eternally grateful for. Without that distraction, I would’ve sunk deep into a hole I’m not sure I would’ve been able to climb out of. But then after the book tour ended, I slid down a slippery slope of avoidance and anger. I questioned God and every belief I’d ever held about Him. After months of this, I found myself enrolled in a three-part personal development program (Discovery) that would ultimately lead to a great deal of healing. The first time I truly tapped into my emotions over losing Jess was in D1 in March of this year. Sitting in the movie theater for two hours last weekend was almost as emotionally gut-wrenching as those three days I spent at D1. (And if you’ve been to D1, you know how intense that experience is.)
Before Discovery, I wouldn’t have given myself the freedom to fall apart in a movie theatre. I would’ve stuffed it down and avoided the feelings. But after 30-some years of stuffing and avoiding them, I’ve learned to just let the emotions come, to ride the wave and give into the current. The feeling will pass; it’s not the whole picture, it’s simply part of the puzzle of what makes me.
It’s me doing all the things and feeling all the feelings.
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.”
Have you ever thought about the types of reader you’ve been throughout your life?
If you don’t enjoy reading, probably not. (And if that’s you, well, thanks for being here and reading my blog. Your efforts are greatly appreciated!)
Losing myself in a book has always been a favorite pastime of mine. If nothing else proves true about me, I am a reader. Though I’m fairly positive I didn’t emerge from the womb reading, I can’t remember not having my nose stuck in a book. There’s even a picture of three-year-old me “reading” to my younger sister.
In her newly-birthed book, I’d Rather Be Reading, Anne Bogel (aka Modern Mrs. Darcy) references Madeline L’Engle’s belief that a person is a compilation of all the ages he or she has been. Bogel goes on to add an addendum:
“Just as I am all the ages I have been, I’m all the readers I have been. […] I’ve been many kinds of readers over the years, and I remember them fondly. […] I’m the sum of all these bookish memories.”
I, too, am a sum of all the readers I have been.
The Readers I Have Been
As a kid, I loved the library (still do, actually). My mom, sister, and I visited every week or so; I got lost in the children’s section, thumbing through thousands of titles looking for the next adventure I would embark on. I always walked out with my arms full of a stack that nearly reached my eyebrows. The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, The Saddle Club, and Mandie are among many of the series I devoured. (Don’t get me started on the ones I wasn’t allowed to read. *ahem* The Babysitters Club *ahem.* I’m still a little bitter about that. Clearly.)
In high school, I was the nerdy kid who lugged her biology textbook to youth group—not because I had a huge assignment to finish before boarding the bus the next morning (I was homeschooled) but because I wanted to finish the work before the prescribed deadline. I waded through the more grown up—but still tame—shelves of Christian fiction at the library: Francine Rivers, Janette Oke, Beverly Lewis (I was obsessed with her many Amish series) were among my favorites.
In college, after a brief stint as an education major, I switched to English. I started to rebel against my evangelical upbringing which frowned upon the likes of Harry Potter and the Twilight series and read them with a close circle of English major and professor friends. I fell in love with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Frost’s poetry, The Transcendentalists’ essays, Alcott’s Little Women, and so many more. And then there were those I barely tolerated yet was grateful for the expansion they brought to my worldview: Toni Morrison’s Beloved (gave me nightmares for weeks), Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables (I adore ol’ Nathaniel, but this one was a slog to get through), The Red Badge of Courage (I’m not ashamed to say I never finished), Moby Dick, and almost all the British texts I was required to read. And a huge research project gave me reason to pour over all sorts of texts about American Sign Language and Deaf culture.
It was the most saturated reading period of my life. And it was glorious.
Shortly after college, two of my friends and I went on literary tour on the northeastern United States. Haley, Harvin, and I spent nine days soaking up the old hunts of our favorite 19th Century writers: Hawthorne, Alcott, Thoreau, Longfellow, Frost, Emerson, Dickinson, and Twain, and Poe. We traipsed through cemeteries, in and out of author homes, and around Walden Pond. The site of Thoreau’s cabin, Hawthorne’s sky parlor (which brought tears to all of our eyes), and Alcott’s bedroom left us wide-eyed with wonder. We were in our element.
During my late twenties, I fell into a deep depression. I lost my passion and zeal for just about everything, including reading. Survival was my objective. When you’re in survival mode, it’s difficult to find enjoyment in the escape that fiction brings. It’s equally difficult to find the mental stamina to concentrate on nonfiction offering. So I stopped reading. Losing my reading self was one of the hardest aspect of that three-year period. The written word (which Thoreau calls “the choicest of relics”) was like air to me and without it and other things I enjoyed, I withered.
Until someone in a Facebook group introduced me to Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly. I picked the book up and suddenly found myself reflected in the mirror of each page. For the first time in years, I began to feel a spark of life reignite in my mind, body, and soul.
I was a reader once again.
The Reader I Am Now
Since that day three years ago, I’ve read nonfiction almost exclusively. My job gives me the opportunity to read, write, and hang out with authors. My inner reader—the child combing the library shelves, the teenager lugging textbooks to youth group, the college student reading hundreds of thousands of words each semester, the depressed young adult who lost her words, and the mid-thirties woman who has finally found her sweet spot—is absolutely giddy.
And when I came upon this little gem of a book by Anne Bogel, it was a no-brainer. A book about readers written by a reader? Sign. me. up. This book showed me the absolute beauty and delight of the reader’s life. Bogel knows readers. She made me realize I have #readinggoals I didn’t even know I had. (Living next door to a library?! Obtaining my lifelong reading records?! YES, please!)
I’d Rather Be Reading
Anne knows what makes readers tick (flashlights under covers, TBR stacks, library fees, bookstore visits that last hours, literary road trips…) and she paints our picture just the way we would want: in written words.
If you’re a reader, give yourself the gift of this book.
If you know a reader, hand them this mirror in which they can see the magic and mystery of the readers they have been, are, and will be revealed.