Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Black and White and Gray Zones: How I learned to stop worrying & love the label


I'm honored to have my dear friend, Rachel Shain, guest post today in response to the recent Charleston shooting and Rachel Dolezal controversy. Rachel has been engaged in the race conversation for the past decade, and shares with us some of her story today.

An onslaught of race incidents this past spring has reminded the entire country that our allegedly healing race wounds remain fresh and open. I had spent several days thinking about Rachel Dolezal, aptly described as having “tumbled, fully formed, out of Larry David’s head,” when the most recent news came out. The mass shooting in a historically black church in Charleston left me little emotional room to contemplate the outer boundaries of race identity politics. Everyday reality is brutal enough.

A few days after first reading about Charleston, I nonetheless found myself returning to the case of Rachel Dolezal because her decisions highlight long-held questions about fighting racism. Deciding how to demonstrate a commitment to racial justice can be confusing for people outside the affected community. Activism is supposed to be sexy and passionate, but in reality the first steps—carefully listening to and building honest friendships with people in that community—produce nagging feelings of incompetence and ineffectiveness. As uncomfortable as that is, it is preferable to finding yourself in the ironic position of trying to embody someone else’s story. There is much talk in certain circles of voicelessness, but sometimes the best way forward is not to give someone a voice by telling their story for them but to acknowledge that they already have one and listen up.

Rachel Dolezal’s story also engrosses me because I ran into significant roadblocks in enforcing my own chosen racial identity on the world. I was raised to ignore the question of race altogether, not because my parents naively believed that race did not matter, but because they wanted to personally protect me from the American racial labeling system. The historical legacy of the one-drop rule put a man of my father’s complexion in an awkward position: being biracial was not an option in his time, so he could either eschew both identities or adopt a fully black identity. He chose the former.

For the first 18 years of my life, I self-identified as white simply because I did not know what else I could be. I do not speak African American Vernacular English. I first had soul food in college. So I always checked the “white” box. But society denied me my chosen label. Society told me I was not white enough to claim whiteness.

Society was right. In my mid-twenties I finally held the proof in my hands: genetic testing confirming a substantial percentage of sub-Saharan African ancestry. The moment was strangely anticlimactic. Numbers are less definitive than what a dozen white hair stylists had told me over two decades with their furrowed brows and perplexed comments about my voluminous and suspiciously curly hair. Numbers do not inform a lifetime of strangers asking me, “What are you?”

My first race incident happened on the sidelines of a soccer field when I was in elementary school. A teammate stood up and pointed at me, chanting tauntingly, “You are bla-ack, you are bla-ack.” I did not know what it meant to be black, but it sounded very bad. I adamantly denied the accusation because I did not think anything was wrong with me and ‘black’ was clearly wrong. In junior high, a white hair stylist enthusiastically suggested that I chemically relax my hair, and I followed her advice. My low self-esteem about my hair remained as full-bodied as ever. I decided to stop relaxing my hair six years later in college—if I hated my hair anyway, why spend all this money relaxing it?

Going back to my natural hair turned my life upside down. Black women began initiating conversations with me about natural hair. Black men started hitting on me. I once went into a Greek Orthodox cathedral. All the Greek Americans seemed to assume I was Greek, but the one black man in the room approached me and asked if I was a black American. One time when I was visiting a coastal city in Guatemala, two black local women walked into the restaurant I was eating in and looked around the room. They began having a private conversation, gesturing several times in my direction. The pair then walked up to my table, which included several white people, including another woman. I was singled out and asked if I wanted my hair done. It turns out they were selling on-the-spot braiding services.

All these incidents and a thousand more told me the same thing: I am not white. Over time I learned to love my hair, my complexion, and my roots, and I am indebted to my kind black friends who embraced a confused mixed girl and patiently answered naïve questions.

Two pregnancies have made my hair substantially less curly, something I still grieve. I am now even more of a walking racial Rorschach test. African Americans frequently claim me, but usually with more questions than previously. When I fly to Latin America, I get handed the Spanish entry forms. I have to explain that I am an English speaker, feeling a little sad to have disappointed. I lived in France for a year, and people there often assumed I was from a North African background (or the perennial “maybe Jewish?”). I have caught myself several times on the way to a Muslim-owned family grocery trying to guess what might constitute modest dress in Islam. I worry they might think I am a bad Muslim in my usual clothes. (I am not Muslim at all.) And then I debate with myself whether I am being prejudiced to think that. I find myself hoping I can be excused from prejudice in this instance, but I recognize that even spending my entire life as a mirror for other people’s assumptions about race does not give me license to spew my well-earned paranoia at every perceived threat.

Why a white woman goes mostly unchallenged in adopting a black identity for many years, whereas I could not manage to do the opposite, is an excellent question. The answer goes back to the one-drop rule I referenced earlier. One drop of black blood makes you black: racist thinking at its finest. But when millions of people adhere to the same set of rules for hundreds of years, trying to change those rules involves constructing a fantasy world and playing make-believe that everyone lives there with you. Sometimes the best option is to live in defiant conformity to the old rules, reinterpreting them with your own attitude and imbuing them with new meaning: Black is not wrong. Black is good. Black is beautiful.

Our historical and cultural contexts mold us into the people we are. We are not clay to be formed by our own hands. It never occurred to me to continue to insist that I was white because, frankly, everyone else’s interpretation of my race made more sense of my experience than my own interpretation. People say that race is a social construct, which it is, but that does not make it less real. A woman insists that she is black because she identifies as black. Not so. Nine people in Charleston could not will their way into another race when they discovered they were about to be killed for theirs. As powerful as the will is, it cannot make us unaccountable to our history.

I hear we ought to be reveling in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This month, I will not be doing that. Instead, I offer a toast to my dysfunctional relationship with the trio that created and then solved all my identity problems: community, responsibility, and bounded self-determinacy.

Icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com is licensed by CC BY 3.0

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Friday, June 19, 2015

A Lovely Curiosity

Bedtime with little ones is often a challenge, but introduce the warm glow of a summer sunset and the excitement of a day running in fountains and splashing in creeks with friends, and it can feel like a total impossibility. Little bodies sticky and sweaty from a full day outdoors, rosy cheeks and dirty toes, bounce their way up the stairs, corralled finally by the sound of more running water: bathtime. Bodies scrubbed, jammies on, books read, songs sung. A kiss goodnight and I hold my breath, hoping tonight will be the night they surrender to sleep, quickly and calmly. 

But just like that precious night a year ago, I find myself pulled back into the kids' rooms over and over again. Often for another kiss, sometimes for a drink a water, and increasingly with the beckoning of a question. 

Mama, how do those shadows get there? 
Mama, how does my fan keep spinning? 
Mama, why is the wind so noisy?  

My son has a little flashlight that he likes to sleep with, which was originally intended to illuminate a book until he could fall asleep. But lately, his mind races with "How?" and "Why?" and I find him exploring the insides of his fan or crawling underneath his bed to "investigate," even hours after putting him to bed. He is full of questions and a yearning to learn. A lovely curiosity.
Rachel Held Evans writes in her book, Faith Unraveled, "Those who say that having childlike faith means not asking questions haven't met too many children." 
I remember being curious as a child, often asking "Why?" -  wanting to understand the meaning and mechanism behind things, just like my own children do now. Wanting, often, simply to learn and converse, not just to find a definitive answer. Much to my mother's dismay, I would push and prod if her responses didn't feel sufficient for my little heart. I am sure there were many bedtime battles, questions rattling off my lips as my mother tried to slip out the door to piles of laundry and a moment alone. As a mother myself now, I empathize with her short answers, her tired replies. But as a child, I just wanted to know. 

When I reached adolesence, still asking and searching and investigating everything, I found comfort in a religious system that claimed to have all the answers. And although for a season those answers wrapped me with a great sense of security and purpose, I soon realized that the answers were being given without a space for conversation, without room for questioning or pushing back. I realized that my desire, my need, was more for learning and conversing then for knowing and answering.

Evans writes later in her book, "I used to be a fundamentalist...the kind who thinks that God is pretty much figured out already, that he's done telling us anything new. I was fundamentalist in the sense that I thought salvation means having the right opinions about God and that fighting the good fight of faith requires defending those opinions at all costs. I was a fundamentalist because my security and self-worth and sense of purpose in life were all wrapped up in getting God right - in believing the right things about him, saying the right things about him, and convincing others to embrace the right things about him, too."
Today, there is much more that I am unsure of than what I have figured out. With each new question, another ten unfold, and I find myself constantly learning and opening up to new understandings. Asking "How?" and "Why?" as frequently as my children. 

Gone are the black-and-whites, the "ins" and "outs," the days of such sure answers and of constant certainty. Today, I have more questions than answers. And a deep yearning to learn. A lovely curiosity. 

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Monday, June 15, 2015

Tell Your Story

In a couple weeks, I will be leading my third 30 Day Writing Challenge. I birthed the idea of the 30 Day Writing Challenge after starting on my own journey into writing and self-expression, a desperate last-measure which I write about here. As I experienced the power of storytelling for myself, up rose a deep desire to share the treasures that writing was bringing into my life with all of you. 
The 30 Day Writing Challenge is not about making everyone into an exquisite writer, a full-time writer, or a regular blogger. Not at all. The Challenge is about giving you a structured space to explore your own soul. Consider it a guided journal. And if you want to share, great. But the Challenge is more about giving you a space to finally hear with clarity the sound of your own voice as you sit in silence and tell your stories - to yourself first and foremost, and then to others if it seems right. 
Even a year ago, when all I had was my own testimony, I sensed the power of storytelling. That's largely why this blog exists. Because I  believed that penning our journeys would be a life-altering act. And I wanted to live out that belief by telling my stories, and by inviting you into the journey of telling your own stories. 
Today, to add more weight to my claim that telling your story is life-altering, I'm sharing just a few of the quotes I have collected from "the experts" - authors and storytellers, movers and shakers, poets and visionaries. I hope you'll take a minute to read their words, to take them at their word, and to consider signing up to be a part of the July 5th 30 Day Writing Challenge round hereIt has been so rewarding to have readers and friends join me on this adventure, and I cannot wait to go at it again, perhaps this time with you!

For more information about the 30 Day Writing Challenge, go here. 

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Red, White and Blue Granola: Happiest, Healthiest Start to Your Fourth

I'm excited to get to be a part of a great group of bloggers this year for our second annual Red, White & Blue Blog Hop. Here, you'll find over 100 Red, White & Blue themed crafts, recipes and decor ideas - everything you need for a festive, fun summer celebration!

My own idea was inspired by my family's current obsession with this homemade coconut granola. I tend to make a batch at least once every other week, and thought it would be fun to add a festive touch for a happy, healthy start to your Fourth of July!

What is the Fourth of July without a big family cookout, plates piled high with burgers and potato salad and baked beans? And don't even get me started on the dessert table, with piles of pies and layers of cake and tasty treats to satisfy even the biggest sweet tooth. Mmm...my mouth is watering just thinking of firing up the grill!

Since I know we'll all be indulging throughout the day, I thought, why not come up with a healthy, festive start for our day. My family loves this natural, tasty granola recipe, which only uses five ingredients. Add some blueberries and star-shaped strawberries, and you've got a fabulous, patriotic breakfast to serve your clan before the festivities begin!

I free handed these star-shaped strawberries by cutting two horizontal layers, and then edging out triangles on each corner. You could also grab a small star cookie cutter to do the trick!

To make this simple, healthy, oh-so-tasty Coconut Granola, follow the link here. You'll just need five ingredients, a few minutes for mixing and about 25 minutes for baking. I like making a double-batch, then storing it in a mason jar. It should stay fresh for a week or so, but who can leave homemade granola uneaten for that long anyway?! Enjoy!

Ready for lots more Red, White & Blue recipes & projects?!

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Monday, June 8, 2015

Coconut Granola: Five Ingredients

I confessed last week that our family recently went through a major diet overhaul. After years of watching friends read all the research and test out all the recipes, I finally decided it was time for our family to be much more thoughtful about what we were putting into our bodies. 

That being said, we all have major sweet tooths around here. Rarely was there a week when the kids and I did not bake together or go on a "candy run" to satiate the sugar cravings.  We may have eaten a decent bit of fruits and veggies already, but let's be honest: Ice cream was its own food group in our house.

So, figuring out how to eat our "sweets" within a Plant-Based Diet, and within moderation, has been a big part of this diet switch for us. And perfecting this Coconut Granola recipe has been a lifesaver! I make a double batch every couple weeks and we tend to treat it as dessert, serving it up with some vanilla almond milk later in the evenings.  

So without further ado, my five ingredient Coconut Granola recipe!

Here's what you'll need:

6 cups oats

1/4 cup coconut oil

1/2 cup honey

2 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 cup shredded coconut

Here's what you'll do: 

1) Preheat oven to 350 F

2) Melt your coconut oil until liquid. I would start in 10 second intervals.

3) Mix your three wet ingredients, whisking and blending as much as possible. The oil will, naturally, resist mixing, so don't stress about it too much.

4) In a large bowl, pour liquid mixture over oats and stir well, making sure all oats are evenly coated and no clumps of liquid have pooled anywhere. 

5) Use a paper towel dabbed in coconut oil to grease the bottom of a large cookie sheet. Pour the oat mixture out into an even layer on the cookie sheet. You won't want the granola to be stacked very thick, so if necessary, use two sheets. 

6) Bake for 25 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. 

7) Remove and let cool. Once cool, pour into mason jar and shake in shredded coconut. 

That's it! Five ingredients, five minutes of prep, 25 minutes of baking - and you've got a healthy, hearty snack or a sweet treat to cap your evenings off with! Hope you enjoy!

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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Every Man's Battle

This is a guest post by a dear friend in response to recent news coverage about Karen Hinkley & Jordan Root.

The story of Karen Hinkley and Jordan Root has gone viral. It centers around The Village Church, a 10,000 member megachurch whose lead pastor is the famous, Matt Chandler, and their response to Karen’s discovery of her husband’s abuse of child pornography while serving as missionaries in East Asia. The details of what happened, when and how, have been the subject of letters gone viral, the main ones being here and here

In brief, The Village Church (at the time the couple’s home church) placed Karen under their church disciplinary process as a result of her "unwillingness to seek reconciliation." The real controversy, though, is that Jordan, the addict, somehow escaped a need for formal church discipline. As part of their disciplinary process, The Village Church emailed 6,000 members, providing details as to why the couple was home, what Jordan had done, their interpretation of Karen’s response and why they were placing her under church discipline. Somehow, Karen had become the bad guy for her “lack of submission,” and Jordan the hero for “fessing up.”
Clearly this is a deeply personal story, and as with every relationship, has its own nuisances and history to consider. This post is not an attempt to dispute facts or to provide every detail of every side. Rather, the fact that this story has exploded and caught so many people's attention should give us reason to stop and look a little closer. And so today we're stopping, looking, and asking, What is the bigger picture here?
Perhaps it is that when churches attempt to stuff something as profound and mysterious as the Divine and the Bible into a concise doctrinal statement, and form things like, "church disciplinary policies," there is likely going to be some splitting at the seams and lots of room for error. 
Perhaps it is that there is a terrible current of sexual sin running rampant through churches today, and that The Village Church’s response speaks of how skewed parts of the conversation around sexual addictions has become.
I discovered this in a very personal way when I asked other women from my own church community if their husbands had a “porn problem.” All but one said yes. The real kicker: Many of these men are serving in church leadership positions, training for pastoral roles, starting their own families. Somehow their sexual addictions aren’t serious enough to warrant counseling, let alone removal from leadership for a period of time. Why??

I think a big clue lies in the fact that the church has coined pornography, “every man’s battle,” and in doing so, has allowed these men to feel very justified in continuing to make bad decisions, often for years on end, often in secret. Although few churches would say it overtly, the message conveyed is usually something like, “It’s a shame that women allow themselves to be sexualized and tempt men to fall into sexual addiction. These poor guys just don’t stand a chance in our culture, bless their souls.” I know this, because I have lived this.

When I read Karen Hinkley’s story last month, I had moments of extreme déjà vu, minutes at the monitor with my face flush in jaw-dropping gasps. So many emotions came flooding back, so much the same in Karen’s story and mine. How many women have gone through some version of this horrific experience? And yet, too, there are things I cannot relate to at all in Karen’s story. It is her story, not mine.

Still, we both were/are extremely connected to a church body, we both seem to have felt certain in our choice of spouse as being “the one” or “God’s plan for our lives,” and we both have/had spouses that have/had serious sex addictions that were unknown to us until many years into marriage. Like Karen’s husband, Jordan, my husband concealed his addiction throughout our dating relationship and into our marriage, until finally I overheard a conversation he was having with a friend late one night, a conversation in which he admitted he was struggling with regular pornography use. I knew this was something he had struggled with in high school and his freshman year of college, but was told on numerous occasions throughout our relationship that this “struggle” was no more.

When I found out that those earlier reassurances had been bold lies and that I had been married to an active sex addict all these years, I was immediately ill. I was devastated and disillusioned. In a moment, it felt like my entire marriage had been a sham – the man I married was a mirage and when the illusion faded, I was left standing with a man who had no real identity to me at all. So many lies...

Like Karen, I turned to our friends, our church and our pastor – and this is where our story takes a bit of a different turn. Upon telling our pastor and his wife about my husband’s addictions, they offered to come to our home and spend the evening with us, to give us space to talk, uninterrupted by meetings, agendas and the overall workday drudge. They stayed until after midnight, while I cried and yelled and told them every detail and concern with our marriage and my husband’s sexual addiction. I shared my uncertainty about the future and the very real possibility that I would file for divorce. They met me with great love, understanding and acceptance. My heart breaks for Karen that she wasn’t able to experience that gift. 
The only piece of advice given by my pastor and his wife that night, was to make sure that the decision I was making was one I owned with my whole heart and mind and could tell my children about with great confidence one day. I walked away from that conversation feeling a tinge of hope and a lot of support. I assumed I would get the same reaction from anyone else in our church I decided to share our struggle with - love, understanding, acceptance. Unfortunately, like Karen, this was far from the reality I experienced. 
Our church’s number one selling point has always been “community.” Our church is that place where you can go, with all your stuff, your baggage, your hurts. A place where people will be there to “meet you where you are,” bring you in and make you feel like you’ve always been there. At least that was our initial experience, and so much of the reason why we had been drawn to this community and remained committed to them over the years. We would have never imagined that all of this could change…but it did.

When I began to share about the issues in my marriage with my closest church girlfriends, I was initially met with great empathy. They all expressed deep sympathy, offered their help and provided encouragement. In the beginning, it felt so good to proclaim the ugly secret that was brooding behind our closed doors.

But as I continued to share, I noticed my church girlfriends becoming increasingly uncomfortable. I was not letting my husband off the hook, I was holding him responsible, I was giving him an ultimatum – be abstinent from pornography or I’m leaving. The ultimatums made my friends squirm. They explained that they thought I might be over-reacting, that it wouldn’t be best for my children to end the marriage (as if children can’t see through a fake marriage), that this is “every man’s battle,” and that I should remain faithful to my marriage vows of “for better or worse” no matter what.
Here's what I heard when those words were said to me - what many women hear when these messages are hurled at their pain. I heard, “You’re too emotional and your emotions aren’t trustworthy,” and “It’s better to pretend you’re in love so your children turn out okay,” and “It doesn’t matter if he stops, or if you’re happy - you promised to stay together and that’s what you must do.”  Those words took such a toll on me. I was tempted to not trust myself, to not trust the Holy Spirit inside me who was - despite all the other voices trying to speak on His behalf - screaming, “This is NOT okay, this is NOT good, and this CANNOT go on.” I was tempted to listen to the voices of my “friends” and deny what God was so vehemently pleading: This must not continue.
Thankfully, my best friends (I can say that even more profoundly and confidently now than ever before), my counselor and my pastor pointed me toward that voice of God, told me to listen and trust, and have lovingly supported me every step of the way. What in the world would I have done without them?

I wish that those church girlfriends were the only hurtful voices I encountered, but unfortunately, like Karen, that is only half of the ordeal...

You’d think that my husband’s actions towards me, or my friends weird and hurtful judgements, would have been the most painful parts of this entire experience – but I can assure you that it was the reaction of my husband’s friends that sent me from a downward spiral into a full blown tailspin. They said things like, “I told you she would eventually divorce you,” and “Make sure when you go to counseling they address her issues too,” and “She’s never had a close relationship with God,” and “You’re not the bad guy here, you’re a really good guy.” It was another barrage of many hurtful conversations to obsess over during long months of toiling and regrouping, of trying to figure out if our marriage was worth saving. I was dumbfounded how the conversations had changed.

It was as if they were blaming me for my husband’s addiction, that somehow I drove him to it (and hasn’t finding a scapegoat for another person's decisions been going on long enough?!). They said it with their words, with their actions and with their abandonment of us as friends when we eventually confronted them about it. In the end we decided that our marriage was indeed worth saving  - but it would have been much easier to do with a little more of the love and acceptance that we expected from our church friends.
I cannot help but connect my experience to Karen’s. All of a sudden, because she dared to call her marriage a fraud, because she dared to leave a relationship that for all intents and purposes never existed to begin with, because she did the unpopular thing, the negative attention was diverted almost entirely to her. She dared to abandon a lie in search of the truth, to begin again her way. She disappointed her church by not doing it their way, and they let her know in a very public way.
It was like The Village Church was trying to turn Karen and Jordan into their next short film: “Romance Rekindled – How One Man’s Addiction Reconciled Him and His Wife to the Lord,” and when they realized they weren’t going to get their neatly-scripted happy ending, the church flailed around to regain control, trying to force Karen to reconsider her supporting role. How damaging it was for them - for any of us - to pretend that there is only one right way to navigate such a complicated life experience.

When this kind of thing happens to someone, support and compassion are helpful, blame and judgement are not. Gentle leading and encouragement are helpful, coercion and abandonment are not. Love always wins, and from personal experience I can say, it is the love of those who cared most that carried me through some of the hardest months of my life. If it weren’t for those sweet voices of love and hope, this post would end with a bitter, angry sentiment stating something like: If you don’t get it from the pulpit, you’ll get it from the pews.
And that would be very, very sad.

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Monday, June 1, 2015

You Are Welcome

When we lost our son five years ago, I had no context for grief, no experience with loss of that proportion. My husband and I were in our mid-twenties and had been living a fast-paced, "highly favored" life as Christian leaders and church staffers since before meeting one another in college. At the time of our loss, we were living in Thailand as full-time missionaries.

After converting to Christianity as an early teen, I had spent the past decade speaking of pain and tragedy and hardship in the past tense. I heard others around me doing the same thing, shoving struggles and doubts and depression into a dark corner marked BC, "Before Christ". It was as though admitting struggle or voicing questions undermined the power of the Gospel, and so it was very taboo. Instead, the very definition of each of our "testimonies" had to carry with it a victorious ending so invigorating that it couldn't help but make you feel stronger in your own faith.

Except when it didn't.

After experiencing such confusing, wounding loss while in Thailand, we returned to the States bewildered and in desperate need of a compassionate, embracing community. And after years of serving and loving the church, we were now in the passengers seats, in need of being served and loved relentlessly ourselves. We fully expected to receive just that.

Unfortunately, going to church was immediately a painful experience. Not only had we been living out of the country for almost two years and had naturally drifted from some friendships as a result, we came back with the role of "parent" having been abruptly ripped out of our hands. We had to learn to function in a new culture, in new roles, and in almost every way imaginable felt like outsiders from the moment we landed.
Who could we talk to about the frustrations with Thai culture we had experienced? Who amongst our young twenty-something friends could relate to the two years of spiritual warfare and political struggle and heartbreaking losses we had experienced? How could we express the depths of our loss to people who had never even met our son? It was a confusing, lonely time.
Within a few weeks of returning to our home church in the U.S. - the church where my husband and I met and married several years earlier, the church that would be my first employment straight out of college, the church that had invited us into elder meetings and had laid hands on us along with the congregation to commission us on our journey to Thailand - we started to realize with deep sadness the level of our brokenness and disillusionment, and watched as a chasm grew, the result of others not knowing how to deal with our loss. We would be greeted with well-meaning smiles, but the real issues in our hearts always managed to be skirted around with talks of weather and jobs and God's goodness, as though our grief was a leprous colony inside us, our pain and questions the untouchables of our souls.

Rachel Held Evans writes in her book, Searching for Sunday, "It became increasingly clear that my fellow Christians didn’t want to listen to me, or grieve with me, or walk down this frightening road (of doubt) with me. They wanted to fix me." I think far too many of us can relate. 

Every week, for months, we would gird ourselves up for another Sunday morning - desperate for a tender touch, desperate for a word of hope in our suffering, desperate for a safe place to rest - but by the end of the service would leave in tears and sobs that continued to pour out of us for the remainder of the day. Sundays started to became so exhausting and confusing, that the drive in became heavy with a silent dread. The drove home, on the other hand, was full of sobs and screams and severe attempts to be heard, to be understood.

Finally, after months of this, we arrived to a Sunday morning service when a new sermon series would begin about Faith & Suffering. My heart leapt and for the first time in months, I felt a sense of hope. This is what we had been waiting for. This was the light at the end of our dark tunnel, the guidance and encouragement our souls had been so longing for. Today, surely, God would finally meet us.

The service began like always, with drums and guitars and confident prayers from youthful lips much surer in their faith than I had ever been. Too many lights, too many smiles, too much volume for my bleeding heart. 
By this point, my soul had forgotten the words, too clouded and confused to join in with choruses like, "Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God You are higher than any other. And if Our God is for us, then who could ever stop us? And if our God is with us, then what can stand against?" My soul could only respond with my own litany of replies and questions, "If our God is for us, then how could all of this have happened? And if our God is with us, then where is he now, in my pain and aching and longing to be touched? And if our God is able, then what am I doing wrong??"
I know now that these weren't even the right questions to be asking, at least not the most helpful ones. But with little guidance or perspective, the cavernous ache in my heart couldn't find the words to ask anything else. My heart was bleeding and drowning my faith with it.

By this point, too, we had stopped sitting in our usual spots. Instead of being front-rowers and part of the in-crowd, we now snuck into back rows, ready for a quick escape if needed. Instead of being the greeters and announcers, we now averted eye contact and tried to remain as invisible as possible, hoping to avoid as many painful pleasantries as we could. 

On this fateful Sunday, once we made it to the sermon, my soul was already losing hope. The light in the distance was already fading. God had seemed so absent, so silent for so long, that it felt nearly impossible to ever find Him again. I listened to the sermon, with only the tiniest seed of hope still aching inside me.

I don't remember much of what the pastor said that day. I remember a young lady, similar in age to myself, was brought up to give a testimony of her own struggles and suffering as a part of the sermon. She shared about family members diagnosed with terminal illnesses and her own bouts of bad health. I cannot remember the specifics of her suffering, but this I know: After speaking for just a couple of minutes, she spent the remainder of her time on stage sharing how miracles had happened, how God had been so present, how life had turned out even better than she could have ever expected. It felt like the "Before Christ" epidemic all over again. Victory, happy endings, a constant Presence - not my experience at all. I wanted to throw up in my lap and run out of the room. 
Why couldn't a testimony be given without the happy ending? Why couldn't stories be spoken by those still struggling, still suffering, still questioning and wrestling and on some days, doubting it all? Why did every testimony have to be presented in a pretty little package, wrapped with a sparkling bow, tagged to "Victorious"
It's not that I think this girl was lying. Or that miracles don't happen or that God shouldn't be given credit for all the good in our lives. It's just that many Christians have a terrible tendency of presenting a very lopsided view of life. Many Christians plaster on smiles, skirt around pain, lock themselves in certainties and avoid all questioning. In an effort to encourage and boost one another's faith, we often only share stories of victory, stories of completion, stories that have been wiped clean and wrapped neatly - but there I sat, drenched with tears, covered in the muddiness of my own doubts, unable to relate to a single word this girl was saying.

And the message I kept hearing over and over again was this: "Cry for a season, not too loudly, and then move on. Doubt for a season, not too loudly, and then move on." Instead of rest, I felt shamed. Instead of encouragement, I felt outcast. Instead of healing, I felt even more wounded. And instead of finally seeing an example of faith and struggle co-existing that Sunday morning, I was shown once again that if there is ongoing struggle, something is wrong. Because Christians are happy, Christians are victors, Christians have happy endings always.

That was the last Sunday I ever stepped foot in that church.
Evans goes on to write in her book, "I became a stranger to the busy, avuncular God who arranged parking spaces for my friends and took prayer requests for weather and election outcomes while leaving thirty thousand children to die each day from preventable disease. Instead I lay awake in my dorm room at night, begging an amorphous ghost of a diety to save me from my doubt and help me in my unbelief. Reading the Bible only made things worse, raising more questions, more problems to be solved. The words of the worship songs in chapel tasted like ash in my mouth. I felt my faith slipping away." Now this I can relate to completely. 
It took three years before I finally witnessed the fact - largely by brave, beautiful authors like Evans - that Christianity and struggle deeply coexist. That questioning and doubt are a part of life, even, and especially, the faith-filled life. That often there are no answers and that always Mystery is welcome. That to be a Christian is not to have a happy ending, or to never doubt or feel alone, or to know all the right answers. In fact, there are very few "right" answers, and the history of the Body of Christ is complicated and multi-faceted, and a heavy dose of humility would do most churches a world of good. 

But I didn't know any of these for three long, lonely years.

And so today, here is what I would like to say to you, friend: Your pain is real. Your suffering is real. Your loss is real. Your questions are real. And there is nothing wrong with you, as a proclaimed Christian or not, grappling and struggling and crying and despairing - today, tomorrow, and for the rest of your life. All your mess is welcome. It is all fine. 

And this, too: God is real. I don't mean that in a snuffy religious way. I don't mean that with neat bows or clear answers or happy endings. Because many days you won't feel God at all. And many days you won't want to have anything to do with him/her. Many days you will be so wounded by others "in the name of Christ" that you will write off the church completely. Always, there will be grey. Always, there will be mystery. Always, there will be suffering and struggling and wondering and waiting. 

And always, God will welcome us. 

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