Who are you not being or what are you not doing because you fear how you will appear in the eyes of others?
What reputation are you trying to uphold?
I've spent tons of energy on my good, Christian girl image for as long as I can remember.
And being in ministry my whole adult life has not provided relief. At times, this has intensified the inner critic that reminds me that I have a reputation as a Christian leader and spiritual guide to uphold.
Quite frankly, I've given way too much thought as to how things like changing my theological stances to not-every-Sunday-church-attendance affect my reputation (case in point, I just gave way too much thought in writing this sentence!).
I have often chosen rule-following over following my heart. And the many times I have boldly followed the still, small voice within, my inner critic who abides there as well, has often stolen, killed, and destroyed the freedom found in the following. Fearing outer criticism causes such unnecessary inner turmoil!
Some say we begin to care what other people think in middle school.
My daughter started middle school this year. She told my husband and I that she wanted us both to be at the bus stop with her. I thought after the first day or two she would probably like us to remain at a safe distance. I was wrong.
She wants us there everyday and even wants a hug before she climbs into the bus! Part of me loves this. And I have to admit, even though she feels not a hint of embarrassment, a part of me feels a twinge of it for her as I see the other middle schoolers looking out the window of a full bus. Maybe I'm feeling over-protective (if she won't protect her image, I will!) or maybe it's the middle school girl in me still caring what others think. Why risk it?
One morning last week I sat at the kitchen table after an all-night headache with little sleep. I told her, "Your dad will have to go with you to the bus stop, I don't think you'll want me along." She said, "Why not?" I said, "Look at me, I'm still in my pajamas!" She replied, "You had a hard night, of course you are, but I don't care, it's not like I have a reputation I need to defend!"
I looked at her bewildered. Have I ever not thought I had a reputation I needed to defend?!
Then I held up my hand and said, "You need a high-five because you'll be good to go if you can keep that sentiment through middle school." She laughed. Oh the freedom to authentically be who you are and do what your heart desires no matter what others think!
We both walked her to the bus stop (although I did change out of my pajamas).
After she climbed on the bus, I looked at my husband and said, "Who is that child?" Then I told him how her response immediately ambushed my weary heart, speaking into my own life of places where I've been overly concerned about how I appear in the eyes of others.
If a middle school girl can wholeheartedly choose what is inside over what others think of her on the outside, then perhaps I can, too. Oh the freedom! God knows it's time.
By the way, the next morning she pointed to us and said, "I may not have a reputation to defend, but let's not do this again!" We had unknowingly put on matching t-shirts to walk her to the bus stop! I appreciated her authenticity. Both of us cringed as the bus drove past.
More than I thought.
In 2009 I had emergency back surgery for a ruptured disc that caused the worst nerve pain I have ever felt...paralyzing lightning down my leg and out my right toes leaving me screaming.
After the surgery, I'd hoped the muscle pain and sciatica I had experienced on and off since high school would finally be gone...it wasn't. I did physical therapy (having already done chiropractic). Again I was hopeful...it didn't help.
Whenever the pain would hit, I'd chalk it up to accidentally bending or twisting and tweaking an old basketball injury. It would have me either in bed or on the floor with my feet up on the couch for days. I thought my active life of hiking and carrying stuff (like my own little girl) was over. I (& those around me) started treating my back gingerly, making sure I did not lift or do anything that could trigger that familiar shooting pain. You can imagine what I looked like whenever I walked and sat down or did anything that included my back (amazing how much does!).
One night at a breathwork class, after observing me, the instructor told me to read John Sarno's The Mindbody Prescription, saying it would help. I thought this was laughable. I'd undergone the knife and physical therapy, how could a book help? Undeterred she told me how it had helped a friend with my kind of pain. At the end of our time she said, "You're so young, I just don't want you to be in pain the rest of your life." What did I have to lose? I read it.
I haven't been on the floor or in bed due to back pain since. Seriously. That was 8 years ago!
Over the past eight years, beginning with that book, I've learned three things:
My physical self is interconnected with all other parts of myself. How I am spiritually affects how I am emotionally which affects how I am physically and all can affect how I am relationally. What's happening relationally can affect how I am mentally and emotionally and physically and so on. If we choose to dissect and isolate any of these when we have dis-ease or pain in any given area, we miss ways of healing that come when we consider the whole of us.
A lifetime of being a "good girl" coupled with perfectionism affected my body. It led to the suppression of anger and other unwanted feelings which finally erupted in physical pain. My unconscious thought physical pain a better choice than emotional pain. Locating an old area of injury and a socially acceptable place of pain (back pain is what ulcers used to be!), that's what it chose. It's interesting the games our minds can play (thinking that they're helping us)!
Seeing God as a Divine Task-Master perpetuated my good girl-perfectionist cycle. Since we become like the God we adore (as I mentioned in last week's post), my inner critics had no problem replicating this God-like perpetual drivenness to accomplish and improve. Be better. Try harder. Be (or at least act) perfect. And it's no surprise that snippets of Scripture would often run through my mind to back up these "commands"! Anytime I fell short, which of course I did since I'm human, I took the feelings of anger and shame and stuffed them. Eventually my body would no longer "play these reindeer games" (it began warning me in junior high but it took me a long time before I would or knew how to listen!).
Now my body is my friend. I view it as part of the whole. It tells me the truth. When I feel nerve pain begin in my toe, I know that if I don't tend to what feelings are running under the surface, it will soon start in my back. My God-created body has invited me to not only reflect on my God-created emotions but even my image of God. As my image of God has undergone healing and transformation, guess what? It's affected my mind, emotions, relationships, and yes, my body. Thank God for that gift of back pain.
Sitting around a campfire years ago, I led a group of seminarians and professors in a time of silence.
Afterwards, one of the professors shared that not long into the quiet she began to smell something unsavory. After a few moments, she realized the smell was body odor and a moment later realized it was her own!
Her first response was shame. Since it was at the beginning of our time she decided that rather than get up and leave, she would sit with her shame and her body odor in the holy silence. And slowly she began to feel the love of God envelop her and speak lovingly to her from within herself. Within minutes she went from shame to accepting and even appreciating her humanity.
This is the humanity the Son of God entered long ago.
Although we clean up the site of Jesus' birth in story and song, the reality is he was born in a barn of some sort. He was born to parents who had been on a long, dusty journey. And if you've ever been present at a birth, you know it's not neat and tidy. Consider those smells. You could say the site and smell of his birth was as shameful as the site and smell of his death.
As an adult, Jesus continued to enter deeply into humanity even using dirt (humus) and spit to heal. What some may consider gross he transformed into a means of grace. Maybe Jesus was telling us something about being human. You don't need to be ashamed. Shame is a lonely place, it has been from the beginning (just ask Adam & Eve or the professor sitting at the campfire!).
Jesus' own lineage, his family tree, was marked by shame--adultery, incest, prostitution and murder (as well as people who did little to make a name for themselves, good or bad)! Yet it is here, from and among the lonely, shameful places and people that Jesus was born, lived and died. What do we make of this? Clearly God is up to something. This story has something to say.
Here is a God who from the moment humanity felt shame and hid, entered in with words and care (Genesis 3). Then when they came out of hiding, offered them the hard work of love as the pathway to transformation. The Incarnation, this Word becoming flesh in Jesus, reiterates and provides an exclamation point--it's into our shame where God chooses to come and again offers transforming love.
Had she not noticed her body odor and allowed God into her shame, the professor may have missed the Holy Voice speaking words of love to her. She could have missed the Beloved leading her to accepting and appreciating her own humanity (which then overflows into accepting and appreciating the humanity of others).
Yes, Christmas is full of good smells (fresh pine, cinnamon, gingerbread, peppermint and orange) and we can certainly celebrate those. But what if we miss the message of the manger because we're overly focused on the savory?
What are the unsavory parts of the season? Where are you most experiencing shame and loneliness in your life right now? In other words, what or where are you hiding?
Perhaps if we come out of hiding and acknowlege what "stinks" we may witness anew the Christ who was born in an ancient barn and laid in a manger. Jesus is the face of God, the One who comes to us right in our humanity (especially there) with Good News, transforming our stench into an aroma pleasing to the Lord. Breathe deep!
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.