Giving Us Back to Ourselves
A few weeks ago I showed up to a small night of worship at a friend’s house. I had worked all day as a production assistant, catering to the whims and needs of a group of people, making coffee runs, loading and unloading cars, doing tasks only to be told I wasn’t doing them the exact right way and redoing them. It’s a job I love, but it can be exhausting. I almost didn’t go to the worship night, but at the last minute I just kind of found myself driving there, so I figured I was supposed to go. I was late, but they were just starting when I arrived, so I tucked myself into a couch and spent the night mostly observing, occasionally participating.
I’ve been a worship leader for over ten years, and I’m used to singing in front of people and being in command of a time of worship, so choosing not to participate can feel both awkward and refreshing. Sometimes I refuse to participate out of obstinance, sometimes out of need. This particular night, I felt like I wanted to just sit and take in the voices and perspectives of everyone else in the room worshiping around me. I just did not have any more energy to give to this after my day at work. I couldn’t get my brain out of work mode, so I let the people around me carry worship for me, and I just sat.
After a while, a few people shared whatever was on their mind, and one person in particular shared something that woke me up a bit and finally hit the place in my heart that could open me up to receive something. To be honest, I don’t remember exactly what he said and if I agreed with it or not, but I know that it triggered my own train of thoughts that spoke a much-needed reminder to me:
God’s grace is the act of giving us back to ourselves.
In my religious background, as in many, we were trained to believe in the depth and weight of our sin. Our depravity. Our brokenness. Our unworthiness. Hearing this message throughout my adolescence really did the job it set out to do. I was constantly broken, believing that I was a terrible person who was always hurting others and letting people down. I couldn’t say a nice thing about myself if you paid me to. I believed in “God’s grace” but only that way, in quotations, as a theory and not a reality.
I grew up in that mindset and entered into the evangelical church with that mindset, submitting my personality and leadership style completely into the hands of leaders I trusted. If there’s one thing I’ve always been good at, it’s letting other people mold and shape me. I’m good at being a rule-follower, an expectation-meeter, a puppy dog of a person. Few things are as satisfying to me as knowing I performed at something exactly how someone expected me to. And surely that can be a great thing, as long as it leaves room for my own personality and convictions, which it obviously did not for many years.
By the time I started really growing up and casting off my need to please everyone, I was in over my head. I was married to a man with a vastly different view of how to live life than mine, and I was deeply ingrained in a megachurch that focused on culture and having everyone conform to the same language, style, and mindsets.
What’s interesting looking back is how I was stuck in both of those things but felt very differently about them. Regarding my marriage, I knew I was miserable. For years. I knew I wanted out but had no way of believing I could get out. But in my church experience, I thought I was happy. And in some ways, I was, just at a much more shallow level than I realized at the time. I spent a decade of my life conforming to the culture there. I hopped on the bandwagon and learned how to dress, speak, and sing how they wanted me to. I lived and died on their feedback and encouragement. Pleasing my leaders there gave me such a high, and I lived for being a good example of how to be “all in.” Because I was good at it, of course it made me feel fulfilled. It wasn’t until I decided to get divorced and broke my built-up image of the rule-follower that I started to experience the loss of my status as a golden child of the ministry.
I knew after I told them I was ending my marriage that I would eventually need to leave the church, too, but because I was still contributing and thriving (on the surface), I wasn’t able to sever that connection. But as the months went by and my role at the church changed in reaction to my divorce, I felt my ability to contribute slipping away. I was a part of a team that I believe genuinely cared about me, but it seemed that no one was able to help me keep my place within the organization, and eventually I was let go. Even though I look back and see that it unfolded in a pretty great way considering, it was still an unbelievably painful experience. After eleven years of wrapping my identity up in that place, it cut me loose in one quick, heartbreaking motion without a single glance back.
Rebuilding from that betrayal will take a very long time, but I am committed to not living a bitter and forlorn life. I am committed to being a better pastor of people than the ones I had in that place. I am committed to rebuilding my identity outside of one specific partnership or organization.
So back to that worship night, when this friend of mine said the thing that triggered grace being an act of coming back to ourselves, I had flashbacks of all the ways I had tied myself to other people and groups. I thought of the painful conversation with my husband when I told him I didn’t see our marriage working out, and I thought of the way God in that moment handed me back a piece of myself. How She reached right in and clicked a little piece of my heart back onto the larger part. I thought of the ways I repeatedly poured myself out and took on the heart of the organization I was a part of, and I thought of the way God set me free from it and wiped away the mess of them and gave my back to myself, moment by moment.
I thought about how choosing not to engage in this little worship night was me coming back to myself and not being defined by someone else. It was me giving all I could in that moment and letting that be enough. I thought of how when I left the church, all the Christian-y metaphors and allegories seemed so stupid all of a sudden. I couldn’t hold onto a single one, except the image of God as a lion, soft and strong, fierce and playful, tender and wild. I held onto that image, and on this particular night, I held on the image of my Lion nudging my shriveled up, broken heart back into myself, for me to receive fully and with gladness. And I did receive it a year ago, six months ago, two weeks ago, and again today. I am receiving pieces every day, and I am rediscovering that I am not broken or bad or worthless. I was just lost for a little bit.
It’s ok not to force ourselves to engage. Sometimes we will be in the presence of other people having an experience, and we will not be able to share in it. This doesn’t make us broken or less holy or less worthy or anything at all. It makes us human and should set us at ease. I cannot force my spirit to engage if it’s not open to it, and exerting effort toward it will only invite shame or disappointment in myself, and I’m not here for that anymore.
What you can give is what you can give. What you can experience is what you can experience. There is no level of engagement you must achieve in order to prove anything to anyone, even yourself. But I believe God is big enough to allow little bits of hope in sometimes even when we don’t feel like receiving it. And I believe we are worthy of receiving ourselves again, from God, from the universe, from our friends, from ourselves. Whatever you believe or don’t believe about grace, it is most certainly meant to complete you, not to erase you, and you are certainly worthy of that.