Unashamed

“Shame is a prison as cruel as the grave/shame is a robber, and he’s come to take my name.” -“Ain’t No Grave,” Bethel Music

I recently had a conversation with a woman who was filled with so much shame that all she could imagine God saying was “I don’t want you here.”

Anger at the lie surged through me, and I prayed over her, confident in God’s Father love whose arms are always open and waiting.

But then shame returned to stalk me these past few weeks, that sly enemy lion, growling that I should be so much further along than I am. Shame’s words:

You’ve been following Christ for years. How can you still struggle with this? You’ve been following Christ for years, yet look at you. 

Shame tells me that this time, God’s patience will surely run out.

God’s word tells me that he has compassion on me, for he knows that I am dust. (Psalm 103: 14)

Shame tells me to censor my prayers, that God is a triage unit, and I should only pour my heart out to him if it’s something that others would agree is significant.

But reading the Psalms shows me that this shame is not from Him. The book of Psalms is a game changer when shame comes knocking. In the Psalms, we see the raw cries of those who felt forgotten and abandoned by God. In their prayers, two themes emerge:

  1. They were unafraid of pouring out the darkest thoughts of their heart to God.
  2. While shouting their afflictions, they kept His promises in view.

Psalm 42 is a beautiful example of these 2 themes. The Psalmist is honest about his state: “My tears have been my food day and night…I say to God my Rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?”, but comes back to the Lord’s goodness: “Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

For me, a journal is how I follow the pattern of the Psalmists. Writing Scripture focuses my mind in a way that speaking does not, but for you, it might be saying Scripture out loud or singing. Whatever your preference, know that proclaiming the promises of God is a beautiful and powerful act of defiance against Satan’s schemes.

Some great places to start are Psalm 42, Psalm 73, and Romans 8.

Later this week, I’ll be sharing my process of writing, praying, and responding to the Psalms. I hope you’ll join me!

Much love,

Hope

Layers

The mystery of layers: it has haunted in that awkward place between thought and words since I became older than I ever imagined I could be, marinating in a mixture of memories and color.

The layers are becoming too thick to bear, scratchy as an old wool sweater. Year by year, the stories pile, nestle themselves on top of each other, enveloping me with heat.

Sometimes the layers make a kind of macrocosmic sense; the camera pans out, and my cord in the tapestry of God’s faithfulness is illuminated by a sunset cast in the right light or by a moment of starry clarity in a vivid, lonely contentment.

But lately, the layers climb higher and higher until I feel trapped in my own story and the stories that have built it; I grasp at photographs and memories of vivid, lonely contentment on a road that I loved and hated for 10 years, then 9 months.

Is there a limit to the stories we can bear? Is it possible for the memories to usurp the joy of the mundane, and if so, can they somehow still be held as dear without anchoring us to the past?

To repeat the same stories again and again shows how tightly I hold the experiences as markers of identity: getting stitched up by Konstantine the Dentist, escaping the kiss from the Russian soldier on the train, discovering Eden, falling in love with a place and people in a Narnia-like journey 12 years ago…I play these stories on repeat, identifying with the past, bathing in the past until I prune up, because maybe the future scares me a little more than I know.

Alyosha Karamazov once told a group of boys emerging into manhood that one of the most vital things they could do was to remember one good memory from childhood. I’ve always found this ending to The Brothers Karamazov to be anticlimactic, disappointing. But as the years write layers thicker and thicker and the road winds more unexpected than my child self could envision, I nod at Alyosha in understanding. When the future stands over you with a smirk, the past can be a warm hand to hold.

But with the looking back comes the human tendency to dis-member then re-member the past into one where He was not faithful. And if He was then, then His character has rapidly changed in light of the layers that I certainly did not choose.

Bluntness: when I don’t get my way, my heart is revealed as a muscle that pumps disbelief.

Question set number two: how can I re-member the memories that I so often dis-member? How can I love Him more than I love my own little story? How can I skydive trustfully into the future instead of pacing within the confines of a stale old temper tantrum?

The questions remain.

The answers are there, age old and simple, yet as hard to submit to as they were for Abraham, Sarah, Naomi, Job, David and the whole cloud of witnesses.

The answers are there, the Answer is there, waiting with open arms to be the constant I have sought in the files of my own identity. So in a conclusion of the heart, I say that I submit, but that I also know I will have to re-submit by hour, by minute. To unclench my fists and breathe in the next unexpected, beautiful layer.

They Call it Culture Shock

It comes most noticeably at first in the assault of your senses: in the din of new sounds flooding your ears, in the thick scent of lead paint that varnishes university walls, in the bright colors of houses that contrast with the crumbling roads and mud-splattered Ladas. It comes secondly in trying to navigate the unwritten rules, those elusive laws you clumsily grasp for when you sit squished by babushkas in a marshrutka, hoping that this time you won’t give the driver a reason to yell at you.

But finally and most deeply, it comes in the subtle strains, in the interaction with a teacher where you both spoke the same language but could not find an общий язык. Despite the fact that the syllables coming out of your mouths code for meaning, by the time the message gets through the filters of culture and intonation and dialect it is sterilized, lifeless. And despite the fact that you stand face to face with each other and her voice is crisp and clear, the meaning is as garbled as words underwater.

In this proverbial game of telephone, you become acquainted with the isolation that comes from a lack of true connection. Every other time you have come to this place, you have had the ability of precise, implicit communication with those from your culture. You took for granted the взаимопонимание, the mutual understanding, because you didn’t realize how similar you actually were. You thought you were wildly different from each other, so different that you would have never become friends had you lived alongside one another in your own country.

And now that there you are the only one, you realize that you are more American than you thought. You had always thought that you didn’t fit into your own culture, with its bustle and extroversion and entrepreneurial spirit. You thought all this when you straddled the chasm between Russia and America, holding tight to the hands of the Americans who came with you to this land while trying to grasp just as tightly the hands of these mystery people who had fascinated you for half your life. And you thought that if you kept letting yourself be pulled in both directions you would split, so you let go of the American hands.

As soon as you let go, you found yourself being dragged over hills, scraping across rocky paths, now using your free hand to wave for help, frantically looking back at the place you left. You now realize that the hands you let go of were hands like yours, and as you are pulled across new terrain, you are lonely. You note the irony, for your eyes were always on the Russians even as the Americans were holding your hand, and now you look at the horizon of nine months and sigh.

But the Russians like to say that hope dies last, and you agree, so you grasp even tighter to these foreign hands, no longer using your free hand to wave for help but to hold on to new hands tighter, knowing that you will be cut and bruised by this rocky terrain but having faith that this road will bring you somewhere breathtaking.

You Are Not Your Picture

I eagerly click on the bright red notification, but I soon cringe when I see the picture my friend has just tagged of me. My hair is frizzy, my features less than perfect, my frame not as petite as I wish it was. I feel exposed. I quickly hide the photo from my newsfeed, hoping that no one else has had a chance to see the ghastly photo. Not to get all Mulan on you, but as I look at the pixels staring back at me, I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.

Why is it that a lifeless two-dimensional image that doesn’t show thoughts or motives or character has the power to ruin my day? I believe that the answer can be found in my aforementioned knee-jerk reaction to the offending photos: “I don’t feel that they reflect who I truly am, or maybe more accurately, who I wish I was.” The above statement that flows so easily into my consciousness reflects my belief in the lie that I am my picture. That my image equals my identity.

We as a culture are obsessed with taking pictures.  Every event is an opportunity for a photo shoot, so we feel the constant pressure to look “our best.” I have some embarrassing personal stories to illustrate this point.

On a beautiful summer day, one of my best friends and I decided to go on a hike in Bar Harbor, Maine. Whereas ten years ago, we might have taken just one shot at the mountaintop, thanks to modern technology, we decided to take pictures at every step of the hike. Now other than breaking up the continuity of the trek, there is inherently no harm in this. After all, the scenery was breathtaking and it’s fun to document your friend adventurously scaling the side of a mountain. There is nothing inherently wrong in the picture taking itself, but the presence of the camera served to reveal lots of ugliness in my heart. After each picture, I found myself thinking thoughts like “I look fat in that picture/that angle was terrible/ahh- I hope she doesn’t put this online!”

My senior year of college, my friends and I continued our annual tradition of greeting the sunrise at a beach near my school. Knowing that my friends were bringing along their cameras, instead of rolling out of bed and throwing on sweatpants at the last minute, I actually got up to do my makeup at 4:40 in the morning.

As embarrassed as I am to share these stories, I suspect that I am not alone. In a culture obsessed with photos, we have learned to define our experiences by how good our photos come out. Instead of fully losing ourselves in the hike or the sunrise, we are burdened by self-consciousness, nagged by the fear of the photos making us seem less than we hope we are. This small-minded thinking leads to loss; instead of collecting memories of scenery and conversation and the essence of the event, we end up relying on pictures to tell us how we feel about the experience after the fact.

Some might cite comparison to others as the main source of fuel to this fire, and although I believe comparison plays a role in our rabid search for the perfect photo, I believe that the issue also stems from wanting to prove something to ourselves. For each person, the thing he or she is trying to prove may be different; beauty, prestige, popularity and prosperity are just a few of the possibilities.

But though the manifestations might vary, at the core of the desire to see perfection in the photo is pride.

A pride that does not acknowledge the honor of being made in the image of God, but decides that his hands were not deft enough.

A pride that is grossly self-conscious, whose eyes are permanently lodged inward.

A pride that ignores the cross, thinking that it can conquer imperfection through self-improvement and self-realization.

As a culture, we have fallen for the lie that we are our pictures. We are too civilized to bow down to golden calves, yet we pay homage to the shrines of our own graven images daily.

Photography in itself is good. It is a beautiful thing to be able to evoke memories of special people and places with a simple click of the mouse. But as we can do to any good thing, we can distort this gift into something that energizes pride, vanity, and inward focus. Fighting this idolatry isn’t as simple as trashing our iPhones; it is at the core a heart issue. We are all sinful, and there is no quick fix for our pride, but perhaps we can start by realizing that the statement “I am my picture” is a lie. We are not our pictures; we are individuals created in the image of God, whose souls cannot be captured by a hastily snapped photos. And tearing our eyes off our own images and onto him is the only way to escape our little 4” by 6” prison cells.