Thinking On Women’s History Month

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This is another piece that was originally written for a local writer’s room, Creative Light Factory. CLF’s mission is to provide a community for writers of all levels, where we can learn and grow through workshops and regular writer’s groups.

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Did you know that the month of March is National Women’s History Month in the United States? The month was officially established in 1987 by Congress after being petitioned by the National Women’s History Project. Since then, there have been multiple proclamations by sitting presidents re-affirming that this month is about looking back on all of the vital contributions of women to this nation.

In all honesty, I didn’t even know this month had a special significance (besides Saint Patrick’s Day) until last year when I started to volunteer for Creative Light Factory. Working with the socially conscious and inspiring women of CLF has introduced me to a lot of great things, including a renewed sense that being a woman is a really good thing.

I grew up with a lot of creative and intelligent women in my life. My mother, my paternal grandmother, my godmother and her mom, along with countless other aunts (biological and adopted), and wonderful friends have all had a profound effect on the ways that I think about and live life. I am eternally indebted to them for their priceless examples.

I fondly remember the times while I was growing up when my Mom would sit for hours at her drafting table, writing poetry and creating intricately drawn designs to compliment her words. I carry in my heart the handwritten letters and family stories my Grandmother so diligently wrote to me over the years (even when I was too busy to reply). The difficult persistence of my godmother who has lived many years with painful chronic illness, but who pursues quality of life through creativity, has given me the courage to value my own need for creating.

It took me a long time to become cognizant of the fact that much of these women’s lives were difficult because they are members of a gender that is often treated as inferior. I think I was sheltered for a time by the fact that the women (and men) in my life didn’t make me feel like I couldn’t do or be whomever I wanted because I am female.

After going through various difficult and at times dangerous situations as a teenager and young adult, I became acquainted with feminism and womanism–the need for these historical movements, how they’ve encouraged me to thrive as a woman, and how much, despite being wholly necessary for moving this society towards equality, they have been slandered and misunderstood.

I know that I am still very much in process. I am learning what it means for me to be a woman in my own life, in society, in the world, as someone who creates, a writer and painter. But the stories of the women who have gone before me give me the courage to continue through the confusion, pain, growth, and beauty. The steps I take are not wholly uncharted, despite my tendency to being fearful of them. I follow a line of women who take risks, who love steadfastly, and who create in ways that will inspire me for the rest of my life. For this, I am profoundly thankful.

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Stained & Perverted: Why History Matters

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Christians in the United States (well, white Christians), have a tendency to assume that our faith and our Churches’ teachings are pure. Yes, we all have sin. No, nothing is perfect. But we don’t necessarily go further than that. We don’t pay attention to how our church institutions and histories may be corrupted.

There are many reasons for this, but two that I have encountered the most are:

1. Us white people do not think of ourselves as “white”. We’re “just people”. Because we comprise the majority culture of this country, we do not have to be constantly aware of being “other” (as persons in non-majority cultures do). And for those of us who are Christians, especially those of us who have grown up in the faith, we take what we see in our churches–the music, the make-up of the congregation, the structure of the service, the overall culture–for granted as “normal”.

2. We do not know our history. We have been taught to pick and choose events that fit into the myth that we live in a country that is a meritocracy, that is democratic, and that has overcome all of its issues. It is believed that everyone who works hard enough can get the American Dream. And as Christians, anyone who is good enough or has enough faith can achieve the “Christian” sub-culture’s version of the American Dream. Because of all of this, we ignore huge swaths of our country’s history, especially parts of it that make us uncomfortable and demand us to deconstruct the aforementioned beliefs.

I believe that we cannot know who we are now if we do not learn about how we got here. Without knowledge of our history, there can be no change or healing. As Christians, we know that we cannot ignore our past sins just because we are uncomfortable with them. We have to bring them to Jesus and repent for them. Well, this same truth goes for our collective history.

Our individualistic culture has fragmented many things about us. We attempt to separate things that were never meant to be separated. Following Christ is a holistic endeavor. This means absolutely everything about us is in need of Him. Every cell in our bodies, every thought in our heads, every action we take, it is all to be submitted to Jesus. And this includes our history as a nation and as a Church.

When we stand before our Maker one day, we won’t be able to say “Well, in my country we believe that we are only responsible for ourselves, so therefore I shouldn’t be held accountable for such and such.” We don’t get to decide what God expects from us. His Word tells us that we are a whole body together. Yes, we are parts, but we are not separated from the rest of the body. So we are not a foot separated from the ankle that came before us. Whatever the ankle believed and did prior to us being alive on this earth is connected to us and affects what we believe, how we worship, and what we do.

And so we must learn our history. We need to struggle with the ugly parts. We need to feel the pain that Jesus must feel about how His Bride has gone astray within our particular countries. We must weep, lament, ask the Lord for His forgiveness and to teach us how to worship Him in a way that does not perpetuate the perversion of the parts of the body who came before us.

Part of my attempts to do this has been to listen to my brothers and sisters in Christ from non-majority cultures in this country. I read books, listen to podcasts and sermons, and sit at the feet of mentors. I do not do this perfectly. There are times that I just want to go back to my days of ignorance, it would be easier. My flesh “prefers me to be numb” as a song by Brooke Fraser expresses.

Yet I know that if I ever turn my back on “the least of these”–those whom any society relegates to oppression, persecution, and dehumanization–I turn my back on Jesus himself. So I ask for His help to continue to struggle. I definitely cannot do it in my own strength, no matter how good my intentions might be at any given moment.

Recently, I signed up to be a part of the pre-release book launch team for Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. This is the next part of my learning journey and I have to say that only being two chapters into the book so far, I know that the Lord is going to use this book in my life and many others. It is an extremely timely work for the modern American Church.

You can pre-order the book here: https://www.thecolorofcompromise.com

I would also highly recommend the podcast the Tisby co-hosts: https://thewitnessbcc.com/category/pass-the-mic/

And his organization, The Witness: A Black Christian Collective: https://thewitnessbcc.com/

Why Didn’t She Just Leave?

The other day I was listening to a podcast in the car with my husband that really caught me off guard.  The particular episode, Himpathy, is in a *series by Scene on Radio called “Men” which is about the history of sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny.

In that particular episode, they tell the story of a woman who was sexually assaulted by a friend. This woman went on to interview her friends and family about their reactions to her when she told them about the assault.  In particular, they discuss the reality of something called “himpathy” (which was coined by Kate Manne in her book Down Girl). “Himpathy” is described as: the excessive or inappropriate sympathy extended to a male agent or wrongdoer over his female victim.

As I listened to the voices of this woman’s friends (both male and female) and mother, I was thinking not only about all of the backlash that Dr. Christine Blasey-Ford has suffered after coming forward (she still can’t return home because of death threats, by the way), but also about why I didn’t feel like I could tell anyone about my own experiences of sexual assault and other forms of abuse until many years later.

Two of my experiences with abuse (sexual, psychological, emotional, and spiritual) occurred with significant others when I was a teenager and then a young woman. One was sexual and psychological and the other was psychological, emotional, and spiritual. The first assault I didn’t speak of until maybe 10 years later in therapy and beyond my therapists, only 3 people know the identity of the perpetrator. The second I was forced to talk about because after trying to break up with him for 6 months, I suffered a nervous breakdown. Even then, I couldn’t quite articulate why I was in so much pain or even begin to name what I had experienced as abuse. I could only just get out that the boyfriend had been “controlling”.

And that is an important point that needs to be understood. It can take years, even decades, for a person to name what has happened to them. Despite confirmation from multiple therapists and people who have heard my story, I still question myself when I label what I experienced as sexual assault and abuse.  It isn’t as easy as just speaking words. It involves your whole being processing what happened, letting yourself feel the pain, and realizing that it was actually as bad as the label suggest.

For various reasons, I actually cringe when I use the labels. First, I never viewed myself as someone who would “fall for” an abuser. I was always the person who could see when friends were with someone who wasn’t good for them. I didn’t pull punches when telling them about it either. I saw myself as a strong person, someone who could stand up for herself.

How could I have been so stupid and vulnerable to let these things happen to me? I was foolish in my pride and ignorant of how abusive people work. So many abusers are not obviously abusive. They can be charming, intelligent, funny, spiritual, “good Christians” and even sensitive. Your whole family can love them and think that they’re great for you. I blamed myself for not being able to see through their disguise right away. At times I still do.

Second, there’s this fallacy that if there are no visible marks it didn’t really happen. If the perpetrator didn’t leave his DNA behind or a face full of bruises, then nothing that bad actually happened. I didn’t have “proof”, at least not the kind that would have been demanded of me if I were to report it. I couldn’t open up my chest and show people that my soul was battered and hemorrhaging. I couldn’t lift up my skull and show them the torture that was going on in my mind.

And then there’s the risk of reactions. When you’ve been assaulted and/or abused, the first instinct is to hide; put up walls, shut down the feelings, try and make one’s self feel a modicum of safety again just so you can function. I can still remember the moment when I did this the first time. I was riding in the car next to my abuser to some social function and I began to imagine myself as disconnected from my body, floating through the fields as we drove by. I would rather be numb than to feel the awful, dirty thing that was now a part of me. I tried my damndest to cut off every nerve from what happened to me and in some ways it worked, for a little while anyway.

There’s no way that once you do that you’ll want to immediately subject yourself to questions and statements like:

Well, what were you wearing?

Why didn’t you try to get away?

Are you sure that’s really what happened?

Are you sure it was really that bad?

I really don’t think so-and-so could have done that, he’s a good person.

But everyone loves so-and-so

Every one of these is like sandpaper being scraped over the original wound.

And the shame. Oh my goodness, the shame. It’s as if the assault or abuse has metastasized into something that slowly takes over your whole body. You, the victim, are the one who is wrong. You, the survivor, are the one who should have done something differently so as not to have been abused. The shame eats you alive.

That one doesn’t even need to be verbally spoken by anyone. It’s like it’s in the air. Our culture so demeans women and victims that our automatic response to being assaulted is to turn in on ourselves, making the fault lie with us instead of the person who committed the crime.

This goes back to the theme of the podcast I was listening to: “himpathy”.

The way people react to you can compound the original assault. When people immediately take the side of the abuser or try to downplay what actually happened, you are left with nothing to stand on.

When I was assaulted, I couldn’t imagine ever telling anyone what happened. I didn’t want to be hurt further and I didn’t want to get my abuser into trouble. I cared about him. I even went so far as to tell him I forgave him immediately, without even giving myself a chance to process what had happened. I just wanted to be done with it and for things to go back to the way they were before he did what he did. I was more familiar with just keeping silent and pretending it didn’t happen than what could possibly come after if I were to tell.

And after the second instance of abuse with a different person, I did dare to tell a mutual friend part of the truth. I told him that this ex-boyfriend had been controlling and that it really messed me up. He seemed to care about the fact that I was hurt, but did not believe that what his friend had done was really all that bad. He even asked if I wanted to hang out with the ex-boyfriend and our group of friends not long after I told him, stating that I should be “over it” by then. I knew that he had taken the side of the ex and that the rest of them would probably do the same.

So when people ask “Why didn’t she just leave?”, I look back on my own attitude before it happened to me. My condescending attitude and judgment towards the person who was abused disgusts me. I didn’t understand, nor did I really try to. I went along with what society had taught me. I believed the lie that assault and abuse are the fault of the victim for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, for allowing someone abusive into their lives, for wearing something that supposedly riled up the abuser, and the countless other bullshit lines that benefit mostly men who want to keep their power over vulnerable people.

Oh, have I learned.

I hope you, dear reader, don’t have to go through what I did to learn this lesson. Listen to survivors. Don’t judge, don’t lob inane questions at them, and certainly do not blame them.

You don’t know what it’s like until it happens to you. You don’t know how you’d freeze up, how you’d become so confused that you don’t know what’s up and what’s down, or how you’d be told by those around you to keep your mouth shut. And you don’t know what it would feel like for someone to ask you the same awful questions after what you’d just gone through.

It feels like the world collapsed in on you. And you’ll never be the same again.

 

*I highly recommend the Scene on Radio Men Series, but I also recommend their previous series Seeing White. You can check them both out here:

http://www.sceneonradio.org/

 

 

For Those of Us Trying to Find the Words

I was talking to my brother earlier, asking him to give me ideas for what I should write about. Being who he is, he gave me a deep theological concept that I could barely think about let alone write on. It did make me pause though, to take inventory of what was going on inside.

I realized that I’ve felt so raw the past two weeks that I wasn’t sure I could write about much of anything. He suggested that I write about that.

So I guess I will.

Besides some pretty trying events that have been happening in my personal life, the reason for this rawness has been the events going on on the national stage, namely this whole horrible business with the Supreme Court nominee.

There are a lot of people who have spoken on this subject in either eloquent, understanding ways, or in belligerent denial. It feels like adding to the din could be putting myself at risk of drowning in it all.

What could I say that would make any difference? Would I be adding something of worth? Does my voice matter?

I have my own sexual assault stories. But I don’t really want to put the details out there. Suffice to mention that I’m writing this as a member of a group I would never have chosen to join, not an outsider with opinions void of experience.

People who don’t know what it’s like might consider a survivor someone who would be compromised in some way, maybe unable to see events with clarity. Yet I would say the opposite is true.

Those of us who are part of this non-optional group can often see through the carefully crafted facades of a predator. We know the looks, the sneers, the way an abuser can look so well put together, even charming, on the outside. Yet close the door and get alone with them and it can be as if the devil himself entered the room.

And we also know that you get no perks from opening your mouth about what happened. We’ve fought tooth and nail just to get through each day, to get beyond the engulfing darkness. Why would we invite anyone to swing the door wide open to our damaged souls, to be wounded further, unless it was absolutely necessary?

Given that only somewhere between 2% to 10% of sexual assault allegations are false, it will always be more likely that when a person has dared to put words to the reason their insides have been howling in pain, they are telling the truth. And they should be believed.

When we aren’t believed, it’s like a knife to the guts.

This is why there has been such an outcry over the Supreme Court nominee. Not the ludicrous conspiracy theories some have been clinging to. Not really even because of Roe v. Wade (although for some that is a part of it).

No, the real volume comes from the collective desperation of being forced to live as if the nightmare didn’t actually happen to us. To keep quiet so that we don’t make people uncomfortable. To let everyone believe that the perpetrators are good fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, friends, boyfriends, teachers, pastors, etc., not the desecrators of sacred spaces.

There is an outcry because that’s what should happen. When a person is wounded in such a way as to be permanently altered at their core, it needs to be taken seriously. Not told that it might ruin someone’s reputation. Not threatened with violence and death. Not brushed off because a group of men are snarling for more power.

It should be voiced. And we should listen. We should act accordingly.

As a Christian, I know that Jesus listened to women. And women listened to Him. He welcomed children, he addressed the vulnerable, and he didn’t silence their pain.

As a survivor, I also know that what I and my fellow members of this group ultimately need is to know that the God of the Universe, the One who knit us together in our mother’s womb sees what has happened to us and that He feels everything we have felt. And that there will be justice, either in this life or the next.

I don’t mean intellectually know. I mean experientially.  I mean as deep as the pain goes, we need the knowledge and the presence of God to go deeper. I pray this happens for every one of us.

The Church should be a part of helping us know. Yet it’s rare to find a group of believers who are safe enough to be trusted. It’s truly a travesty that those who are meant to be Jesus’ body in this world are often so damn horrible at it.

There are those who can be trusted though, I’ve met them. There are even those who would like to be, but don’t know how**. To these people, I say that the best thing you can do is close your mouth, keep your opinions to yourself, listen, and pray for humility. When you’ve done that enough times, you might be given the privilege of hearing someone’s story.

To those of you who are in this thing too:

I believe you. I’m praying for you. I’m in awe of your fight and the fact that you are still here. Keep going. It’s hard as hell, but continuing to live, to grasp for existence means you win. The darkness doesn’t get to keep you. There will be a day that that darkness dies forever. I promise. 

 

**For those of you who would like to learn how to be better listeners and friends or partners to those of us who have experienced sexual assault, I have a few suggestions:

Go to this website: http://www.dianelangberg.com/

Watch some of her videos: http://www.dianelangberg.com/videos/

Read her books (Especially Suffering and the Heart of God)http://www.dianelangberg.com/shop-books/

Follow Diane Langberg on Twitter: @DianeLangberg

Am I Really A Writer?

This post was originally written for a great local writer’s room called Creative Light Factory. I volunteer as their Social Media Manager and write weekly blogs for them. It’s been a real joy being able to be a part of something that encourages creativity and community. Please go check them out!

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I was listening to a podcast a couple of weeks ago–I’m definitely a podcast addict–and the interviewer brought up an important question. Paraphrasing, the question went something like: “Have you ever felt anxiety about calling yourself a writer?

Oof. That question cut to the heart. Has there ever been a writer who hasn’t questioned whether or not they should be assuming the official title? It’s a rare person with enough confidence to ignore all of the self-doubt and interrogation that comes with the drive to write.

Yet if you look at the Merriam-Webster definition of “writer”, it quite simply says: “one that writes”. If only we all could immediately believe and accept the authority of Merriam- Webster.

I had to pause to think about that question though. I have been writing for as long as I can remember. My Mom still has the little books I wrote as a kid. I wrote poetry, creative fiction, and ridiculously long research papers all throughout primary school and the bit of college I got through by the skin of my teeth.

However, most of what I wrote stayed in the abyss of my journals. And it certainly didn’t get me any notoriety or green. Maybe this is my particular struggle, but I have a very hard time seeing the worth in what I create without the external kudos.

So I didn’t start calling myself a writer until I was getting paid to write. Even then, I did so very reluctantly. And ever since then (it’s only been about two years), I’ve been waiting for someone who knows better to come along and call me into question.

“Who are you to call yourself a writer? Prove it!”

Despite expecting some naysayer to come running around the corner any minute, there have been healthy encouragements along the way, telling me to accept what my subconscious has been trying to say for 30+ years: You write, Dear, you always have. That makes you a writer.

The biggest influence on my ability to continue pursuing writing has been getting my doubts out in the open. I found a particular friend who quite stubbornly kept at me to share my writing with her and then with others. Whenever I air out the doubts that have been muddying up my brain, she comes back at me with something like: “You are a way more kick-ass writer than you realize.” (I might actually believe her someday).

Surprisingly, the other thing that has helped was revising my resume. I know, I know, but hear me out. As much as I loathe updating my resume, it forced me to really sit and think about what my true accomplishments actually are.

If I were to write about what another person has done and how it can be used towards the good of an organization, I would include things about them that I would probably either forget or completely belittle about myself. Yet if I were to flip that on its head to write about myself the way I’d write about someone else, with difficulty I’d find some things out about my skills that I most likely never realized before.

I know that you might not be encouraged in the same ways that I have found helpful. But I would still challenge you to find a friend or someone else you trust who is in your corner. Let them know what kinds of things you think about or feel when you’re looking at your writing. See how their perspective might bring some freshness and light to the dark corners you’ve kept to yourself.

And start calling yourself a writer. I’m sure something inside you has been trying to let you know this truth about yourself for a while now. Give it a good listen. See what it feels like to own it.

I am a writer.

The Case for Being Needy

Do you ever feel guilty when you ask for help? Whether it’s praying to God, asking a friend, a church, or even “worse”, relying on some type of governmental assistance, do you feel like you shouldn’t need?

Maybe you’ve never experienced this. Or maybe you have but you weren’t cognizant of what it was you were feeling when you did. But I’m willing to bet that at some point in all of our lives, we’ve felt like it’s not okay to be needy.

There are all kinds of thoughts that go through our minds when we find ourselves in a place of need: I shouldn’t be here. I should be relying on myself. Why can’t I pull myself up by my own bootstraps? Why can’t I snap myself out of this? Where’s the positivity? What will people think of me? How will they treat me? What will I have to prove? Doesn’t God help those who help themselves? (Different variations may occur depending on the situation).

Why do these statements and questions barrage us so quickly? Why is it shameful to feel like we need something? A few reasons come to mind.

At the root of it all is very likely the fierce culture of individualism in this country. We are expected to be “self-made”, to need no one, and to take care of ourselves. If we can’t do this, or if we fall short, there must be an issue with us. We can’t hack it. We’re lazy. We just haven’t worked “hard enough”. Because in a society that believes itself to be a meritocracy, if you can’t take care of yourself, it’s entirely your fault.

There are a few exceptions allowed. If you are visibly disabled or possibly just went through a natural disaster, you might be allowed to be needy. Even so, what is more often expected of you is that you work to pull yourself out of whatever rut you might be in so that you can be an inspiration to others to do the same. And God forbid you let anyone know how much of a struggle it is along the way. No, we want the neat package at the end when we’ve all moved on from the tragedy.

And all of this doesn’t only happen in the wider secular society. These attitudes and expectations have most definitely slithered into the Church as well. There are times when it seems as if the Church is even more judgmental about being needy than society. Because God has been brought onto the scene and He is wholly disapproving of us being too needy.

Or is He?

It’s often unspoken, but as Christians in America we are expected to live at a certain income level. If we can attain a middle to upper-middle-class standard of living, then we will have a specific set of needs that we can meet ourselves. Income, food, bills, our kid’s schooling, medical care, and various other needs must be taken care of by our own ingenuity.

This often means that (whether consciously or not) we can keep God around for our spiritual needs, or if something particularly hard happens in life that we find goes beyond our middle-class skill set. He takes care of our sins, mostly. He makes us “good people” who are clean and well kept, able to smile nicely on Sunday mornings. But we don’t necessarily need to ask Him for our “daily bread” or feel like we can’t make it through the day without talking to Him. It also means that we can keep those who have more visible (tangible) needs at arm’s length.

If we’ve spent at least a little bit of time with our Bibles reading what it says about “the poor” we find that we can have a measured amount of pity and compassion for those who can’t hide their needs. We can pat ourselves on the back for donating money to organizations that do the face to face work with the “least of these”. There’s no need to get our hands dirty or to sort through the complexities of the lives of those we’ve set beneath us. They can remain comfortably invisible in our daily lives.

Yet pull back that curtain just a tiny bit and we realize that these expectations are made of quickly dissipating mist. And what we’re really left with are the troubles we’ve worked very hard to hide from those around us, even ourselves. This unspoken American Christian rule makes it incredibly hard to pull down our masks and let our fellow church members see what’s actually happening in our lives.

The truth is we all need. And we all need very deeply. The Bible is full of evidence that humans have been created with need. Our very breath is given. The energy we have to live our lives and do our jobs is given. Any abilities and talents we have are given to us. We cannot save ourselves from sin, pain, death, etc. There is nothing about us that is not reliant on the One who created us.

It’s been a lie from the pit of hell that has set up false expectations of who we should be and how much we should need. This lie keeps us isolated, ashamed, and severely judged if we even dare to open up the tiniest bit. Rarely is there reprieve from the lie, and it’s unusual to find a safe space among the very people whom we should really be able to be honest with.

So how do we begin to deal with this?

Personally, I’m someone who has needed others to affirm my own feelings on the matter. I have been so clearly in need, but instead of acknowledging it and asking for help, I berate myself for being in a situation that means I am needy. Then someone close to me approached me in that vulnerable place and simply told me “You need more help and that’s okay.”

I might not be the person who you’d listen to in your life, but I can’t continue with this piece without giving it a chance.

It is okay that you are needy. It is okay that you need help.

I really pray that the Lord helps that sink in.

Ok, we’ve admitted it. This can be the hardest part sometimes. Then what do we do with this need? Some might say: “take it to God”. And in concept, I agree. But I also feel like these kinds of statements can be a bit nebulous.

I will never say that someone shouldn’t pray and ask God for whatever they might need. In fact, I think everyone should ask Him for absolutely everything they need. Maybe this is still where you want to start. However, I believe that God created us with need in the midst of other humans with needs and even solutions. So much in our lives comes about through the providence of God in other people. We appeal to Him in our vulnerability, and He brings someone along who can help.

Because of our rugged individualism, we are not only isolated from each other, we are automatically made ignorant of how someone else may have been helped with the same need, or even have what might help us with whatever we are facing. It might seem simplistic to tell you to ask a friend for help. Yet, it is often the simplest actions that can lead to the most profound lessons about our need for interdependence.

So I’m going to give the simplistic answer: ask your friend (or spouse, or family member, or pastor, etc.) for help.

And if that person cannot help, ask someone else. While it may be discouraging once we’ve asked and have not found an answer, it is okay to ask another person. Also, continue to pray to God that He would provide someone with whom you can share your need.

I don’t think that there is an uber spiritual or more complex answer to this conundrum. We have a lot of trouble asking for help in this culture, and often more than half the battle is admitting our need and asking someone to meet that need.

Yet I hope that as we start to do these two daunting things, that we will come to realize that having need is not a wrong or bad thing. It is utterly human to have needs. And we’re all in this same boat together, so why not accept it and share our burdens?

My sincere prayer is that everyone who reads this will have the courage to be needy and find another person to share that need with. And that by God’s grace, your needs will be met.

 

Who Is My Family?

I was listening to a podcast the other day and (as they often do) it got me thinking about some experiences in my own life that were very formative. In this particular podcast*, one of the speakers was talking about how she has been ostracized in churches because of her marital status, her gender, her education, and her ethnicity. This is very disturbing to me, not only because of how often it happens in the American Church, but also because I have seen how beneficial it has been in my own life when people have not been ostracized but have rather been accepted for whoever they are.

I grew up in a family of five: two parents and three children. Due to the fact that we lived further away from our extended family on one side and were wisely shielded from abuse on the other, we didn’t have as much time with biological family as others might experience. Yet we did have something that I didn’t realize was unique until I became an adult.

Throughout my life, I have had a lot of “adopted” Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, and Cousins. In everyday life and even during holidays, there were always people who weren’t related to us celebrating, living, crying, and laughing with us. Walking alongside and loving someone who didn’t look like me was (and still is) as normal to me as loving my own flesh and blood.

Like I said before, I didn’t realize that this might not be a common experience for a long time. I didn’t question why my parents chose to do family this way. If anything, I thought that people who didn’t welcome others into their lives as family were the weird ones. I would actually get angry when things like holidays got in the way of spending time with the people whom I wanted to see. I didn’t really get that the world (and often the Church) didn’t see things this way until I started caregiving for one of the people my parents had welcomed as family.

My Godmother (who was an adopted aunt), came into our lives when I was around five years old. At first, she was close friends with my Mom, but as time went on she became a sister to my Dad, and an Aunt to my brothers and I.

Along with unconventional approaches to family, my parents also did something unique when it came to us kids and our baptisms. When I was around seven years old, we started going to an Episcopal church. Having missed being baptized in the church as babies, my parents told my brothers and I that it was our decision as to when we wanted to be baptized. They also told us that we could choose who we wanted our Godparents to be.

I chose to be baptized not too long after we started going to this church. And as for my Godparents, I chose my Mom’s best friend and her mother (who had become our adopted Grandmother). As a little white girl who was accustomed to her adopted family, I had no idea that choosing two single black women as my Godparents was in any way out of the ordinary.

Now let me stop and say that just because I was used to having adopted family members, that did not mean that I “didn’t see color”. I definitely did and my parents were always open about the reality of racism in this country. My Mom, in particular, was always teaching us kids about history and the cultural issues in the U.S. that were most times ignored in school. However, I didn’t think that because I was white and my Aunt and Grandmom were black, that we couldn’t be family.

So, given the normalization by my parents of having a multi-ethnic family life, I operated as if having two black, single Godmothers was another important but not unusual part of my life. I introduced my friends (and later my boyfriends) to them. I took my Grandmother to Grandparents days at school. I listened to my Grandmother’s many interesting stories about her life and about how my Aunt was when she was little. And as I got a bit older, I started paying more attention to my Aunt’s perceptive wisdom about all kinds of things including God and theology.

I think both my Aunt and I would agree that the depth of our relationship changed when I began to caregive for her at age twenty-one. She always had a special place in my life, but I don’t think I understood her fully as a person until I (like many young people) matured enough to look beyond myself as the center of the universe. And I certainly didn’t get that having a single black woman in such a prominent place in my life could be a problem until I became a part of her daily life.

I didn’t notice the stares from people when we’d go out together until maybe the fifth or sixth time. Actually, to be honest, I didn’t notice it until my Godmother (Aunt) pointed it out. I would be carrying her purse, helping her make decisions about groceries, or joking around with her, all the while being pretty oblivious to our surroundings. But of course, she saw every stare, noticed the bewilderment or disdain on every face. Even though I treated her like family, I was still pretty white and still pretty naive.

Over the last eleven years of caregiving for my Godmother (Aunt), we have had hundreds of hours together to get real about a lot of things. We talk about everything, and I mean everything; life, God, the Church, relationships, science, politics, racism, history, you name it, we’ve discussed it. We’ve laughed together, cried together, yelled together, suffered together, prayed together, and struggled through our relationship together. I have learned an immeasurable amount from her about all aspects of life. I know that I will probably never be able to fully comprehend her patience, long-suffering, and determination to love me in the midst of so much ignorance that has come with me being a white person living in the U.S.

But I will endeavor to parse out two of the most important lessons I’ve learned from having my Godmother as part of my family. One, I am intimately acquainted with the reality the Jesus coming and dying on the cross has made all who follow Him into a family. And two, I have come much further along with seeing how much the American Church has actually used the dividing lines of race, class, and gender to make excuses for ignoring what Jesus intends for His Body to be.

I often think about the passage in Matthew where someone tried to alert Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him. His response is the hinge upon which I now base my approach to family:

“He replied to him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ Pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Matthew 12:48-50)

There are many parts of the Bible that support the reality that when we become followers of Christ, we gain a huge, diverse, and eternal family. Yet for some reason, this short statement from Jesus has been the one that’s stuck with me. Jesus’ biological family was right there wanting to speak to him out of concern for him, yet he took that opportunity to welcome everyone who was listening (and everyone who would read his words over the years) into the family of God if they would do the will of the Father. It is a quick moment, a few lines in the Bible, yet so immensely profound.

I know that there are many Christians in the U.S. who have read this passage, understood it at the moment, yet haven’t put it into real practice in their lives. Maybe they don’t know how. Maybe they’ve faced pressure from their biological family to conform to their standards instead of what the Bible says about family. Whatever the reasons, God does call us to make decisions about whom we prioritize in our lives. Many of us may be blessed to be able to call our biological families the same as our Christian family. Yet Jesus himself acknowledged that that wasn’t always going to be the case.

I can’t tell you how God might be calling you specifically to incorporate His family into your lives. I can only share how He’s led my parents to act and therefore myself to follow their example. I can also say that choosing to ignore this reality could not only cause you to be going against God’s plans for His people, it more than likely would also be shunning the blessing of having people in your life who don’t look like you, think like you, or live like you.

This might seem counter-intuitive to our idea of what family should look like and how it should make us feel. The family of God does comfort us and accept us, but it also does so much more. We actually grow in the knowledge of God when we welcome our brothers and sisters in Christ into our lives in a more intimate way than just saying ‘Hi’ or ‘How are you?’ at church on Sundays. And we become more like Jesus every time we go deeper into a relationship with those who challenge us, encourage us, and spur us on in our faith. Our eternal family is a priceless gift that should be cultivated and treasured.

I guess what I want to say in closing is simply this: if you’re a Christian and you haven’t treated your fellow Christians like family, you’re missing out on something God has purposed and designed for all of our good. Is that really what you want? Or do you want to know what it’s like to make your family much bigger and more enriching than you could ever have imagined?

* In case anyone is interested in listening, this is the podcast episode I mentioned at the start of this blog. I highly recommend the whole podcast: https://soundcloud.com/truthstable/hidden-in-plain-sight-single-black-women