Embracing Weakness

5/26/19

{The following is the Introduction in my newly released book, Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World. In addition to ordering from the publisher, you can also order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, and Books-A-Million.)

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Once upon a time I was a missionary in Southeast Asia.

When my new husband and I joined the team, I magnanimously thought of what great good I would bring to the world (through the power of Christ, of course, ahem). I would work to stop human trafficking, I decided, though I had no connections in the field. I would pour myself into the lives of orphans, I predicted, though I had no idea where to start. I didn’t worry about the details; after all, I served a God who would supply me everything I needed. I signed up for thrills, but got the monotony of regular old life instead.

After months turned into a year and the pages of the second year began flying off the calendar, I reviewed my life in despair. Nothing was going the way I had planned. Two years before, ripe and eager in the missions training school, I could never have expected to be so disappointed in myself. I could never have anticipated how small and ineffectual I would feel. My dreams had been way, way over my head — and now disillusionment was eating me alive. I knew I had to do something, anything, or my despair would swallow me whole.

I didn’t have a background in ballet, but I did have access to YouTube tutorials, and I decided that was enough to teach a doz- en of my elementary school-aged neighbors once a week. The diminutive girls in our low-income kampung (village) beamed and buzzed at the prospect of doing something so decidedly upper class. When a donor in the States sent money for ballet shoes, the buzz turned to a roar as little hands clamored to find their size. Two of the girls, sisters, were missing several toes — a genetic abnormality, I supposed. I wondered if they, more than others, were hungry to slide into soft pink leather. Maybe not. Perhaps I was the only one uncomfortable with my own deficiencies. Maybe these girls were content with themselves in a way I would work years to become.

The class was humble to say the least. We never even had a recital. But every Friday afternoon they would come, a tiny conglomerate of skinny brown limbs. Before mirrors and before the witness of one another, we would together admire the grace we didn’t know we had. They, the grace to plié and jeté and see their own beauty while doing it; I, the grace of having less to offer than I thought, yet enjoying other people more than I ever had.

You see, I had never wanted to be weak: to be disappointed by my own lack of abilities or wounded by the suffering I would experience in life. In fact, for the first quarter of my life, I had successfully managed to fool myself into thinking I wasn’t weak. Holding fast to religious absolutes, leadership positions, service projects, and a life of comfort, I went about my days quite satisfied in the knowledge that I was one of the good guys. I pseudo-benevolently offered to embrace the weakness of others all day long, but I refused to reconcile with my own — that is, until the truth of my inner brokenness smacked me in the face, first through missions and immediately afterward, through motherhood.

I suspect I’m not alone in this. I think, deep down, each of us knows we aren’t as strong as we appear to be. The ever-growing list of our failures, disappointments, and sufferings is never far from our minds. And rather than deal with harsh realities life has served up, we find more pleasant ways of coping: food and drink, incessant exercise, romantic relationships, volunteer hours, or the consumption of media and material goods, just to name a few. We can numb our pain with the elements sold to us as “the good life” and temporarily forget that we are not who we’d like to imagine ourselves to be. This feels harmless, until the day we wake up to the reality of the damage caused by our unwillingness to do the hard work of inner change: dealing with emotional distance in our closest relationships, undignified treatment of those we claim to serve, and even a marred understanding of the nature of God. 

Subtle messages of power and “rightness” have infiltrated our theology and churches so much that we don’t even recognize how distorted is the view of God they propagate — an incarnation-less God who has no real compassion for or solidarity with the people of the world he claims to love. Humankind has a fatal tendency to make God into our own image, and if we can’t authentically draw near to those who are not like us, we begin to subconsciously believe God cannot draw near to them either. The further out of touch we become with our own weakness, the more we distance ourselves from anyone outside of our particular “correct” bubble of faith. We dutifully seek to meet the needs of the world while denying that those outside our bubble might actually be able to meet ours. In neglecting to first embrace our own weakness before addressing the weakness of others, we lose the value of reciprocity that Jesus modeled so profoundly. We miss the gift of receiving a sacred God through vessels we have deemed unworthy.

Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t sort people into boxes labeled “acceptable” or “in need of ministry.” When the God of heaven came to earth in human likeness, he chose unethical tax collectors, prostitutes, and low-income fisherman to be his closest friends. He told parables that cast an immigrant as the hero (the good Samaritan), a pious religious leader as the villain (the Pharisee and the tax collector), and a rich man as the fool (the rich fool). He offended social mores, breaking class and gender lines, and challenged the status quo. People called him “a friend of ...sinners” (Lk 7:34) and he wasn’t embarrassed, nor did he correct them.

If we’re honest, we can’t deny that modern Christianity looks much different. Today Christians of all stripes are largely concerned with living clean lives of personal morality and feeling affronted by the secular culture around us. When we do attempt to follow Jesus’ model of the works of mercy, there is a tangible sense of relief when the service is over and we can go back to online shopping and dinner at our favorite restaurant.

Yet we profess this faith because we believe in the way of Christ. Somewhere within us, we long for more. Despite the attraction of comfort and ease, we know we were created for something deeper.

Through his incarnation and passion, Jesus gave us the secret of a more meaningful life; and that secret, shockingly, is embracing our weakness. Rather than reigning from a palace and ruling with an iron fist as he could have done, Jesus came quietly, humbly — willingly accepting the disappointments, limitations, and sufferings of the human experience. The Eternal Word took on flesh so that we could be in full communion with God, without walls dividing the Divine experience from ours as humans. In the way of Jesus, we, too, are invited to make peace with the weakness of our humanity. We, too, are invited into a communion without walls.

For too long we have approached justice and evangelization through our interpretation of “rightness.” Embracing our weakness frees us from this subtle reach for power to find our own reflection in the eyes of the marginalized or the face of the non-Christian. As we open ourselves to encounter God in our own places of pain, disappointment, and self-disillusionment, our judgments of others disintegrate. As we risk authentic encounter with the limitations and sorrow of our own humanity, we grow in empathy for those around us. This willingness to embrace our own weakness allows us to see fewer “projects” or “issues” and more individual human beings with stories of their own. It allows us to relate to those who are different with the reciprocity of Jesus, a posture of the heart that believes and expects all people — even and perhaps especially the least likely — to have something important to offer us, not merely vice versa.

For when we are honest about our own pain and disappointments, we can experience the freedom that Jesus knew. This is a freedom that births solidarity and compassion with our fellow man, a freedom that allows the Spirit to inhabit our gaping holes and imbue our lives with meaning.

Our lives must be more examined and less self-medicated if we truly want to be communal, spiritually vibrant, and rich in mercy. Making the decision to stop numbing our pain and embrace transparency in our relationships does not mean our lives will be transformed overnight. But making this decision empowers us to commit to an ongoing conversion. Yes, this conversion will take all our lives, but there is no need to be daunted by the prospect — after all, this is what the Christian life is all about. The benefits are wholeness in our being, authentic relationships, and a world of more compassion and joy.

In the pages of this book, I share vulnerably about my own journey. Even while knowing that we each have been given our own stories, I confess that I hope you recognize a bit of your own in mine. We are traveling together, you and I, as are billions of other people on this planet, and we are none of us so very different after all. I offer you the greatest beauty and the most painful aching of my life thus far, and I ask that in exchange you might offer me an open heart. Embracing our weakness can be an uncomfortable endeavor, but Jesus beckons us beyond comfort, beyond control, beyond strength: to where only love remains. May we say yes and follow.


"Befriending Mary" Interview

5/13/19

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

"Blessed Mother... To me those words feel so expansive, as though she holds and encompasses all of the nurture and strength of the sacred feminine in the world (which I believe she does!). Calling out to a great, universal Blessed Mother reminds me that I am never alone—always upheld and always guided..."

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I recently had the opportunity to be interviewed over at The Catholic Woman about my journey of befriending Mary, and had so much fun answering their questions. What a journey it has been (and continues to be) to make sense of the place this Mother holds in my spiritual life.

Read the full interview at The Catholic Woman!




On Expansion

4/23/19



On a rare solitary walk recently, I came across a snakeskin in the middle of the road. Now I don’t have a particular fear of snakes—not like my late grandma Irene who used to faint at the sight of one. (Actually, family lore maintains that she would faint at the sight of even a plastic snake, though I was too sensitive a child to ever test the theory out.) In a dramatic departure from maternal precedent, I encourage my children to welcome summer's onslaught of backyard garter snakes. Look, I coax them near; see how we've made a safe home for all creation! I watch their boyish spines relax as unrest leaves, watch them stop shifting weight foot to foot and stand wordlessly in awe.

But even a would-be Franciscan has to admit there is something chilling about coming across a vacated snakeskin. There is an element of terror there, no matter how small the specimen. Snakes have too heavy a mythological significance for it to be otherwise.

... Read the rest at Ruminate Magazine blog!

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

Notre Dame is Burning, and She Has Something to Tell Us

4/16/19

Photo by Priscilla Fraire on Unsplash

As a Protestant for three decades of my life, I wasn't exposed to much sacred imagery. There were exceptions—my parents did appreciate fine art—but for the most part, the churches and homes I frequented were devoid of any religious representation beyond decorative wall crosses and ceramic angels. I'm not sure why or how the absence of such imagery became a hallmark of Protestantism, I only know that, in my experience, seeing an icon on the living room wall of a Baptist home is rare indeed. This is neither a judgment of good or bad, but merely an observation of a notable difference in religious culture.

Since becoming Catholic five years ago, my experience of Christianity has become exponentially more sensory. No longer content to think my way through faith, I find my heart yearning to experience it also through touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing. I am made of earth, after all; the only way for me to wrestle with heaven is to physically encounter her clues. 

The Catholic imagination has historically expressed herself in the weirdest of ways, which delights me to no end because, if you ask me, spirituality should be weird. After all, we're talking about humanity touching Divine cosmic mystery here; if it feels palatable, comfortable, or sensible, we're probably getting it wrong. Throughout the ages Catholic art, thought, devotions, pilgrimages, and traditions have been weird, weird, weird—and I love it. Even the parts that aren't for me, I love, because they're doing something for somebody. Be free to pursue what sparks your imagination! It doesn't have to spark mine.

During Holy Week, Catholics traditionally cover our sacred images in purple cloth: our imaginations are left to face an alternate reality where there is Nothing. Not the intangible, unutterable Mystery that is indeed "No Thing" but a true Nothing—an existence with no truth, beauty, or goodness. An existence without mercy and love or a dynamic Energy that ties each of us together and works tirelessly on our behalf. We are forced to look into such an abyss when we look at that purple cloth shrouding everything we know to be True. We glimpse an existence in which there is no Gospel, no Good News; we look within the recesses of our own doubt and waning, if only for a split second before turning away.

Notre Dame burned on the first day of Holy Week this year. One of the most treasured symbols of spirituality on this earth—mother and keeper of the Catholic imagination—caught fire while a crowd of onlookers kept a holy vigil. Some of the most sacred relics and artwork known to humankind were shrouded by cloths of smoke. Imagine, she beckoned us. Imagine if the Nothingness was true. Imagine if Love were not coming for you—relentlessly, tenaciously, determined as a mother lion, every single day coming for you. Such terror in the very prospect; and chills ran through our bones, saints and sinners alike.

Sometimes it takes a demand of imagining the alternative to make us realize what we really do believe. Sometimes it is only a swan dive into our own doubt that has the power to make us sure. Cloak the world in purple, for she is all sacred art, prophesying to us wordlessly that the longings of our hearts can be trusted. It is Holy Week.

Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin & they will say, 'what have you done with your life?' & though there are many moments I think I'll remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, I was one of us.

(Brian Andreas, Storypeople)

DESIGNED BY ECLAIR DESIGNS