I Can’t Believe It’s the Bible #1: The Syrophoenecian Woman

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

Image credit: Sarah Kolb-Williams (www.kolbwilliams.com/)

“That Time Jesus Called a Woman a Dog So Maybe She’d Go Away. Wait, What?”

At least that’s what the titles should read above Mark 7:24-30 (or, if you prefer, Matthew 15:21-28). Instead, it’s usually just titled “The Syrophoenecian Woman.” Really, it should come with a warning label. I consider it one of the strangest stories in all four Gospels, right up there with the infamous Fig Tree Incident.

Yes, believe it. This woman came to ask our Lord for help casting a demon out of her poor daughter. To which he said, and this is a direct quote from Mark, “Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Meaning, You’re a Gentile. I have to help my own people first.

To which she replies, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children’s crumbs.” Meaning, quite literally, Throw me a bone here.

And he says, “Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter.” Okay, you convinced me. It’s a deal.

It just seems so unlike the Jesus we think we know, the gentle shepherd, the good teacher. Refusing to heal someone? Name-calling? Really?

We tend to not like this passage, we Christians and other Jesus fans. We would like to pretend the passage doesn’t exist, or just skim our eyes over the page, or mutter something about how some dastardly person must have snuck it in there.

But most of us can’t do that, not forever. We are compulsive readers of these relatively few stories. We have to wrestle with the words so we can clearly understand the Word.

I’ve heard a lot of explanations from these wrestlers. Some people say Jesus was testing this woman and that he exulted at her snappiest of comebacks. Some even say he was joking with her, calling her a dog with a wink. Some say there was no irony involved and she straight up taught him a lesson about not being so mean to Gentiles.

Me? I’ve done my share of wrestling, and I know I’m far from done. But here’s the meaning that leaps out of the text and into my heart today.

For me, it’s a story about Jesus’s unique nature: 100% human, 100% divine, both at the same time. And it can be a story of comfort and hope for those of us who are just plain 100% human.

First, a little context. At the beginning of this story, it says Jesus has just arrived in a new place, the region of Tyre. The Mark version of this story says that despite his efforts to keep his healings secret, people keep completely mobbing him. There is seemingly no end to the people who need to be healed. Seems reasonable. There’s enough healing that needs to go on in my neighborhood to keep Jesus busy for weeks.

So at the beginning of this story, it’s the human side of Jesus we see. He is exhausted from a long day of healing. He’s trying to set limits on his ministry so he can come back to do it another day. Right now he inhabits a single human body, and he has to sleep like anyone else. He doesn’t have the time or the energy to do everything.

Who can’t identify with this – the aching feeling that our dreams for every twenty-four hours are bigger than what we can actually get done? What largehearted, well-intentioned person has not felt momentarily paralyzed in the face of so much more suffering than one person’s heart and intentions can handle?

So this woman comes begging, “Heal my daughter!” and I imagine it breaks Jesus’s heart to say no, but in that moment he feels like he can’t say yes. The line must be drawn somewhere.

When you think about it, who would want to choose between feeding their children and feeding the family dogs? What a horrible thing to have to decide. How it must have torn Jesus apart to realize even he couldn’t heal everyone, couldn’t feed the whole family.

In the same way, who wants to live in a world where children go hungry, die of preventable and treatable diseases, die of violence, die at all? Who wants to live in a world infected with all kinds of injustice? Yet don’t we all decide, at a certain point, that there’s more need than our time constraints, our energy levels, our pocketbooks can take? We are only human, after all.

But Jesus is more than human, and the Gentile woman confirms it, loudly, claiming the table scraps of grace God has surely set aside for her.

She says, in essence, One person can’t heal the world – but God can. And God will.

God and man flicker gloriously in the same person. He savors her answer, the cry that expresses her strong faith. She knows without a doubt that Abba can feed the whole family.

Jesus smiles and says to her, You’re right. It’s done. Go home. He doesn’t have to leave the house where he’s staying, go out in the open and get mobbed by more people, lose sleep. The healing can happen despite his exhaustion, despite his limits. God can make a way.

And God will make a way for us too. We are not perfect and limitless, but God can perfect us and fill us with holiness, giving us more than we can ask or imagine. There are no superheroes saving the world singlehandedly, but if we’re humble enough to accept God’s directions, we can find our part to play in the grand plan. We can’t do everything, but in and through God’s holy people, God can do anything.

I love this beautiful, hard story, showcasing the struggles of Jesus who was man and the soaring glory of Jesus who is God.

How do you interpret this Bible story? What questions does it leave you with? What other Bible stories do you wrestle with?


Solidarity for Sheep

Photo credit: Ambersky235 (flickr)

Photo credit: Ambersky235 (flickr)

That funny word solidarity has come up in my life a lot lately – in my current spiritual reading, a random bookstore find, even a recent episode of Welcome to Night Vale. God speaks through paranormal humor podcasts now? I should have known.

And of course, the s-word comes up a lot at church. In my church we use it a lot, but sometimes it seems like we use it so much I forget what it’s all about.

So what is solidarity? This isn’t the dictionary definition, but I would say it’s being moved to action by your compassion. It’s joining with others in a common cause. For those of us who live lives of relative luxury in this world, it often involves taking up a cause that appears to not be your own – declaring that you stand with others just because they are human and therefore their interests are your interests after all.

And, you guys, I am so bad at it. I am the queen of minding my own business and staying out of trouble. I’m certainly not naturally prone to getting into trouble for other people. Are you kidding me?

But isn’t that the epitome of what Jesus did for us? God could have stayed in the heavenly realm, remote from our world of pain and suffering, and judged us from afar. But God is not like that, and Jesus proved it. In Jesus, God entered the world and became our family, made clear that he would do anything to help us. He would become ultimately vulnerable, even die.

Last week at church we read the story of the good shepherd, and it struck me that Jesus used this story to show his solidarity with us. Among other things, he was saying, “I’m not some hired hand, some stranger who doesn’t care about the sheep and will abandon them at the first sign of trouble. I am the good shepherd, the one who will protect his sheep to the point of laying down his life for them. That’s how much I care about you.”

The thing about solidarity is that it can seem so overwhelming. So much is wrong with the world. So many people are suffering. Who knows where to begin? We can’t take on every cause as our own, right? I usually end up doing nothing rather than trying to decide on one thing.

So I like this way of thinking about it, the story of the shepherd and the sheep. The shepherd is close to his sheep and naturally loves them. He wants to protect them because he cares about them. So the question to ask myself is, Who am I growing to love more right now, and how does God want me to stand with them in solidarity? And if there’s no one I love so much I will take on a cause for them, why is that?

I know this is not something I can do alone. I need God to fill me with love by pouring the Spirit into me. Only in this way can I look at others with tenderness and compassion that moves me to help them as naturally as a devoted shepherd protecting his sheep.


Lenten Love Stories #3: The Three-Legged Cat and the Trickster God

July 11, 2011

The six-pound cat limped into the room on her three remaining legs. She threw her head back and made a sound like an old door slowly creaking shut. She was halfway bald, having been shaved twice for surgery in the last week. She still had stitches in her stump.

I looked at her and thought, Perfect.


After all, I was getting a cat because I wanted to take care of something. I needed an outlet for my thwarted instinct to nurture and coddle. That’s why I told the humane society volunteers not to rule out special needs cats. I knew three-legged animals usually did fine, and this cat was even missing a back leg, which would be easier to adapt to than a missing front one. But technically, she did have a special need: to stay indoors due to her lessened ability to evade dogs or cars, and by golly, I was ready to step forward and meet that need. It’s meant to be! I thought, carrying the mewling cardboard box to the parking lot. I don’t even have a backyard! I felt pretty great about myself as we drove home for opening my heart and home to an animal who had had such a hard life and clearly needed me.

Soon, it became apparent our cat wouldn’t need much special care at all. There were some milestones in those early days as she built up the muscles she needed to get around. First time on the bed! First time on the couch! She made it to the kitchen! She jumped into the bathtub! But soon she was running laps around the apartment, scaling a six-foot cat tree with ease, and jumping to bat away toys we threw for her like a goalie in a World Cup match. The only thing she couldn’t seem to do was jump onto the kitchen counters (not such a bad thing, come to think of it).

As I’ve since discovered, her true special need is love. This cat meets me at the door every day, screaming like I’m Paul McCartney, or maybe she’s just so glad I made it home alive from the dangers of the urban jungle. (She also routinely does her joy-screaming routine when I leave the apartment to get the mail, a process of about thirty seconds.) Sometimes she wakes me at four in the morning just because she’s lonely. And sometimes I’m making dinner or doing the dishes or watching TV and I catch her just looking at me and purring.

Maybe I’m making her sound too needy, but seriously, isn’t this why people get pets? So they can see themselves through the eyes of another creature who knows nothing of betrayal, duplicity, or even subtlety, but just loves without apparent limits?

I began to realize I was the one with special needs. God, knowing my deep compulsion to feel useful and do-goodery, clearly put this cat in my path to show me how little I know about love, how much more I am loved than I ever imagined. Who would have guessed anyone could just stare at me adoringly while I make dinner? Who would have guessed I merited tap-dancing enthusiasm just for walking in the door on any given day? Can it possibly be that this is only a shadow of the joy God feels when I turn around from whatever sin entangled me and head back home?

And can I, with all my handicaps, learn to love God the way my cat loves me? Can God’s presence with me make me happy, even when I’m watching TV or doing chores? Can I wake up every morning and say, “YES! Another twenty-four hours with God!” Can I run in God’s direction, powered by joy despite my spiritual limp?

Yep, that’s my God. The one who is always lavishing love on me despite my weakness and my unworthiness and my utter unpreparedness. The one who teaches me through a three-legged cat. The one who made this whole weird, wonderful world and tricked me into loving it in the first place.


That Broken, Beautiful Jesse Tree

Georges DelatourWe light a candle, turn on the twinkle lights, and open up the Bible. This isn’t a usual thing at my house; I’m the one obsessed with the Word, inclined to spill all these words about it. But during Advent, it’s somehow different. We have this tradition of the Jesse tree, Jesus’s family tree. We read about prophets and patriarchs and promises and wayward Gentile women and other weird relatives of the coming King of Kings. We remember that the Christmas story is actually part of a much bigger story.

Sometimes she asks questions that just floor me, like why God didn’t send Jesus before the flood. If Jesus was around in the beginning, was always part of the master plan, why the waiting? Why not send him right away and save all those people and animals from drowning?

Like lots of people, she wonders about Abraham and Isaac. Why would God ask a man to sacrifice his only son? And what man would try to do it? What in the world is such a story trying to tell us?

But the story that really sticks in her craw is Rahab. What is she doing on this Jesse tree? It seems she saved her family but doomed her town by cooperating with the Israelites. How could she sleep at night?

We talk it over, around and around. I argue that Rahab was doing the best she could, that she was positive the Israelites were going to sack the city anyway, that she was not a powerful player, couldn’t escape the game being played by the men around her.

Across the table, in the candlelight, my loved one shakes her head. My words do nothing to quench the fire of anger in her, anger at all this needless violence. And I have to say I respect that in her, her utter intolerance for all this war surrounding the newborn Prince of Peace. She raves about it like a prophet. I wish injustice shook me up that much.

Maybe I find it easier to reconcile all this ugly stuff in the Jesse tree because it’s a lot like my own family tree. People I love, people who did unspeakable things, people who suffered unspeakable things: they’re the same people. Even my little nuclear family was full of genuine love and twisted love, love that helped and love that hurt. My parents tried their best, but they weren’t good for each other. I can’t say I regret they’ve parted ways, but how could I wish they’d never met? Out of that twistedness and brokenness and yes, real love, I was born.

I’m almost comforted by it, actually, the fact that Jesus wasn’t born into perfection. He was born into a war-torn world, a people and a family that did crazy things to keep themselves from getting torn apart.

But I can’t find anything to censure about Jesus in these pages. Not a single thing. And the grace Jesus gave extends backward too, back to all the dubious ancestors who helped bring him into the world.

We read the story of Joseph back in Genesis every year, and there’s one phrase that sums it all up for me. At the end of Joseph’s story, his brothers, who sold him as a slave and faked his death back at the beginning, are worried he’s going to take vengeance now that he’s in power and their father has died. They send him this nervous message, like Guess what? Before he died, Dad definitely said you should forgive us for all the stuff we did. Really.

Joseph starts crying when he hears this, which freaks them out even more. They throw themselves at his feet and beg for mercy. And then Joseph says this to them:

It’s okay. You tried to hurt me, but God meant it for good…

I’ve heard it said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a better past. And I know, from what I’ve gone through with my own family, that you can get to this place. The place where you realize God can do anything with anything, can take the stupidest things you’ve ever done and the cruelest things people have ever done to you and work it all out for good. Just like with Jesus, out of the twisted stump of your past can sprout – of all things – a new life.

It takes a long time for the story to get there, of course. And I can’t explain why suddenly Jesus bursts on the scene after all that carnage and darkness, any more than I can tell you why one day I could call my mom after not speaking to her for over a year. But I need to wrestle with the why. I love when she asks me these questions, because I need to remember what the questions mean. When you can ask questions, it means you feel safe, you feel loved, you love enough to want to get to the bottom of things. Her questions remind me this is not some Sunday school story: it’s real and messy, just like mine.

So we keep reading in our tiny circle of light, unable to see the whole room, unable to see the whole story yet, our own or anyone else’s. But in the questions, in the long, dark shadows cast by the candle as it lights up our faces, there is beauty too.

Humble Pie Never Tasted So Sweet

San Francisco de Asis Mission Church

(Photo credit: Snap Man)

You may be wondering how my visit to my mom went – my first visit in over six years. I must admit, as that train rocked restlessly I tried to distract myself from thoughts of the past, tears shed on previous visits, harsh words that had passed both ways between us over the years. I was full of anticipation and anxiety as I stepped off the train into the hot California morning.

And there she was, waiting just outside, screaming like I was a rock star. We hugged and kissed and I thought how different she looked after all these years apart – and I realized that, whether this visit lived up to my fears or exceeded my dreams, I’d be glad I had come, just for the privilege of being here, next to her in space.

As it happened, the visit was pretty great. I credit good timing, grace, and of course, your prayers. Thank you so much to all those who prayed. I’m so glad I asked; I could really feel the difference.

Over the three-day weekend, the two of us walked around town in the sunshine. We ate omelets with hash browns and English muffins at Mom’s favorite sun-soaked brunch place, real Tex-Mex like I hadn’t had in years, cut up fruit with lime juice and chili on the bus (probably against the rules). I stole sips of her iced mochas. We walked to the library and hung out outside it with a statue of John Steinbeck and the library mascot, a small tortoise. I read to her from The Message as her bedtime approached.

Most beautiful of all, we worshiped side by side in a big church packed with families. We sang songs I remembered from when I was a child, and it made me think of how Mom all but dragged me to church that first time, how patiently she’d answered my frantic, searching questions about religion as a child, her responses amounting to, Well, there are a lot of things we don’t know, honey. Be patient. God will reveal it to you. Without her guiding me toward baptism and my first taste of holy bread and wine, who knows if I’d believe today?

And then, before we ate bread and wine from the same table for the first time in seven years, we sat holding hands, waiting for the Scripture to be read to us. The lector’s voice rang out, speaking words from the book of Wisdom:

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.

It was one of those times when the Word stood out to me in neon lights. This is for you. I knew I had almost been too proud to set aside my schedule, sacrifice the time and money I’d spent on the gift of this moment. I could have missed it all.

And then we made our way to the Table together for the first time in over seven years. I often thought of Mom when I received communion at home, knowing it brought me closer to her in a mystical way, but it was another thing to be right here beside her.

Mom had her problems when I was a kid. And I couldn’t kid myself: she has her problems now. We might never have your typical parent-child relationship. But I was grateful all the same for the relationship we had, for the ability to share what we did. I was so glad I’d humbled myself enough to admit I’d been wrong not to visit her all this time.

Yes, I’d been so wrong I could taste it. But bread and wine had never tasted sweeter.

Newsflash: Settlers of Catan Doesn’t Last Forever

Русский: Игра в "Settlers of Catan"

Forty-five minutes. That’s how long the Settlers of Catan box says it takes. Somehow I can’t seem to remember what a short time that is.

I kind of have a thing about board games. My sister and I got them every Christmas as kids, but rarely did we play them. We preferred games where we made up the rules, where our imagination set the only limits. And this was great: I remember fondly the entire days we spent on sagas in which Princess Clara (my Skipper doll) rescued entire civilizations of Littlest Pet Shop figurines from certain doom, armed only with her wits and her smart-mouthed flying pony. (I’m sure no one who knows me in real life will be surprised in the least to learn about this.)

The only downfall of such games with this: because there was no way to win or lose, I didn’t learn to do either one gracefully. And because I was such a natural perfectionist, I built up the importance of winning, or at least not losing badly, until it became life or death in my mind. Those few times we played Monopoly as a family (which really did seem to last forever – why is that game so long?) seemed to end with me overturning the board. I hated losing so much that I’d lose sight of absolutely everything else: friendships, family ties, proportion, dignity, and common sense.

I’m much better now. I mean, I’d better be, since board game parties are a popular way to hang out among my friends. Currently, I play Settlers several times a month, and I’ve never even been tempted to turn the board over (so far). But sometimes, I definitely slip back into bad habits. My adult version of this happens to be passive-aggressive comments delivered in that I’m-joking-or-am-I? tone of voice. Sometimes my frustration builds to the point where I’ll actually come out and say something outright: “Ugh, I can’t believe I even play this with you. I try to be nice and then you repay me by grinding my face in the dirt.”

I really don’t know why I act this way. It’s like I think the game is a map of my life, rather than something that’ll get packed up and tucked into my friend’s messenger bag, to be brought back the next time she comes over. The moments just seem so long that it seems to make total sense to blow off steam because I’m frustrated at myself for losing.

Maybe this seems like a small thing. In a way, it is. My friends let my remarks go by, because they’re much classier than I am, and they always offer to let me play again next time. My family has even long forgiven me for those horrible childhood games of Monopoly (at least I hope so). But as with so many things, it raises larger questions in my mind.

Why do I still somehow think it’s more important to win than to be kind? Why is it so hard for me to realize that, whether I win or lose, the game will soon be over and we’ll all forget about it? Why is it so hard for me to look at the faces of my friends instead of obsessively scrutinizing the board, to think about how blessed I am to be with them instead of counting my points and inwardly reciting the rules?

In the grand scheme of things, forty-five minutes is nothing. Even my life is just a breath. Everything will be over before I know it. Will I have spent my time obsessing over winning some kind of prize I can’t take with me, or will I be able to look past the fake rules and objectives and set my eyes on what really matters?

I guess I’ll work on the Catan game first. Then maybe I can work on remembering what really matters for the length of an entire movie. Wow, at this rate I hope I have enough time left to learn how to truly enjoy it…

Restoring Relationship

A bronze statue of a domesticated cat and her ...In a few weeks, I’m going to see my mother in person for the first time in about six years.

I can’t believe it. Six years.

The woman who let me live in her body for nine months (to say nothing of pushing me out). Who took me on my first trip to the library when I was just days old. Who let me taste the oatmeal chocolate chip cookie dough after each ingredient was added. Who introduced me to Deep Forest and Stevie Wonder and sang musicals with me in the car. Who cared for our ailing eighteen-year-old cat by cheerfully giving him subcutaneous fluid every day. I haven’t seen her since 2007.

It’s weird how comparatively easy my visit has been to set up, just a matter of train and hotel reservations and asking for a little time off from work. I could have done this sooner, but I didn’t.

Why not?

Well, it hasn’t all been car singalongs and cookie dough. I can’t and don’t want to go into detail here, but suffice it to say that my mom’s had lifelong struggles with substance abuse and mental illness, each of them feeding off the other, and it’s hurt her and everyone who knows her in a million ways. In my childhood and teenage years, I often felt afraid and unable to trust her.

There was actually a period of about a year and a half, starting just before I turned eighteen, when I didn’t speak to her at all. I didn’t answer her phone calls or return her letters. I more or less tried to pretend she did not exist.

Then, about a year after my conversion, when the Midwestern spring finally burst through the snow, it was like Jesus tapped on my shoulder and said, Honey? It’s great that you accepted my forgiveness. Now it’s time to pass it on.

I think he’d actually been trying to get my attention for a lot longer than that. I can be really slow on the uptake.

At this point, we talk on the phone at least once a week. We mostly talk about little things: the latest cute thing my cat did, what I’m making for dinner, what she watched on TV, her roommate’s annoying antics. There are still topics I don’t bring up with her, but things are so much better than they used to be.

Until recently, I was feeling pretty awesome about this. I am such a great daughter! I call her every week without fail! I never bring up all that nasty stuff that went down in my childhood! Good job, Jesus, mission accomplished.

It’s taken me six years to realize that’s not the end of the story. I said I was slow on the uptake.

I have come a long way, and I don’t want to minimize that. But the mission is not accomplished. Calling once a week doesn’t mean we have The Best Relationship Ever and I can now check off the “honor your mother” box.

She lives in a group home, her daily needs in the hands of underpaid, overworked caregivers, and she hasn’t had a hug from one of her kids in years. I have not physically been there to celebrate a holiday or her birthday, to make a meal or take her out to dinner, to just sit there with her and be with her.

I had to get this out there in the open, readers. How can I say all this stuff about other believers being my family when my relationship with my blood family is still so messed up? How can I glibly talk about loving your neighbor when I’m not sure how to love my own mother some days? How can I say I believe the love my heavenly Father has for me is too strong for any other force in the universe to tear down, but still shrink in fear and distrust from my earthly mother?

These things are not unconnected. Relationship is relationship is relationship. Love of God and love of neighbor are echoes of each other. If I can’t or won’t offer myself in the fullest kind of relationship to my mom, I’m refusing a part of myself to God as well. Likewise, if my relationships with other broken people overwhelm me, I’m not leaning on God like I should.

There is room for compassion in these realizations. Jesus knows every childhood hurt that still lives in me. He was physically here for us on Earth, got to feel firsthand all our human emotions and the brokenness of our bodies. He knows choosing to be in full relationship with God and people is hard. And he knows it’s the only thing that allows us to fully live.

So, you praying types, will you please pray for me as I visit my mom over Labor Day weekend?

Nine Words to Guide My Future

In 2004, I remember sitting on that worn basement couch after Bible Study and telling someone for the first time that I was a Christian. I remember walking home to my dorm that night a little drunk on cosmic love, naïvely dreaming of doing Something Great for Jesus Someday as I pushed the glass door of my dorm open, caught between wild darkness and warm glow.

In 2005, I traveled to Greece with its grand, golden, empty churches. I walked to the one neighborhood people told me not to go to, down streets crammed with people and past shops crammed with imported trinkets, to the soup kitchen above a falafel shop. Heavenly smell as I climbed the stairs! Inside, slopping soup and taking names, I learned that my smile was sometimes not enough, that Something Great for Jesus was hard to do, but nonetheless, I kept showing up.

In 2006, they called from Arizona to tell me my grandmother was dying. I flew home immediately, though we’d never been that close and my teenage self-absorption and her dementia had just widened the gap. When I walked in the room I barely recognized her, her body curled in fetal position, the vibrant red hair of her youth almost gone. We children and grandchildren held her hand and fed her ice chips and sang to her and talked to her, although we didn’t know if she could sense our presence anymore. She died the next day, all of us in the room watching her chest rise and fall until it didn’t anymore. What can I say? I’d never loved her more. In those few days, I saw Jesus in her.

In 2007, I went to live in rural Panama for two months. I went “to help,” which was, again, a total joke. I lived with nine other people in a house with one room and one light bulb. They pulled out all the stops for me, gave me the only real bed, taught me merengue and how to wash my clothes by hand. Everywhere I went in that town of maybe a hundred, people pulled out their best plastic chairs, shooed away their dogs, sliced up mangoes, made coffee, killed a precious chicken for my dinner. The strangeness of their world almost shook my faith apart, and their generosity put it back together again.

In 2008, I graduated college, moved to a new state, and couldn’t get a job for three months. Then I got a job, which I found exhausting and grueling, and I almost got fired except I cried in my boss’s office and she took pity on me. I almost couldn’t function, unable to live with my utter incompetence, not wanting to leave the house. The worst was feeling like I’d failed God by letting all this crush me. But I remember, too, crying on the phone with a distant friend about my multiple levels of failure, and she said, “Oh Rachel, don’t you know God loves you so much he’ll never let you go?” And I cried more, because somehow I hadn’t known it before, and now I did.

In 2009, I found a church home for the first time. Weeks before Lent, I walked into that shabby wooden building not knowing how much it would shape the next several years of my life. I ate the bread and drank the wine, and it started to infect me, ever so slowly, like yeast or a creeping weed like mustard plants. They drilled the Preferential Option for the Poor into my head with sermon after sermon, they washed my feet on Holy Thursday and stayed up until midnight with me on Easter Vigil. Before I knew it I wasn’t just a spectator, I was part of the Body again, bringing muffins to interminable meetings in which we plotted how to bring the Kingdom always just a little closer.

In 2010, I picked up my dusty Bible and read the thing through for the very first time. I wrestled with twisted family histories, purity codes, temple blueprints, census numbers, raving prophets, and strange riddles, and I realized something that should always have been obvious: This is a love story, beginning to end.

In 2011, I started praying for real. I sat in silence and tried to learn to just Be with the one who is called I Am Who I Am. I met a woman from Canada on the Internet who wanted to be prayer partners with me. I prayed for her through her months of bed rest during what was possibly one of the world’s most epically difficult pregnancies, and she prayed, with awesome humility, for my relatively pain-free life and my rampant pride issues. We’d wake up while it was still dark sometimes to encourage each other, and miles away we’d pray with similar desperation things like Please let me get through this day.

In 2012, I found myself sitting in on a rather unremarkable seminary class and I heard some words read aloud that were like a big neon sign to me: This is a clue to what you do with your life. It had to do with some of my favorite things: bread and words and desert rain. It was Isaiah 55:10-11:

As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

In 2013, I’m wrestling with that passage and how to make those words come true in me. Can I do it? Too early to tell, really. It may take another nine years. It may take the rest of my life, or even more than that. Who knows.

If I make it through the next nine years, I’ll be thirty-six, the age my mother was when she had me, her first child. I think about that and I think, It’s not too late to give birth to what will bring you your greatest joy. When I think about the future, I think about what I want to define me, and I think of learning these nine words by heart until they power me like a heartbeat: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.

A Way to Freedom: Telling Our Stories

“There are two ways of telling your story. One is to tell it compulsively and urgently, to keep returning to it because you see your present suffering as the result of your past experiences. But there is another way. [You can] see it as the way to your present freedom… as God’s way of making you more compassionate and understanding towards others.” – Henri Nouwen

The late Henri Nouwen wrote those words during one of the darkest periods of his life. He had just moved to L’Arche Daybreak, a community where he could live life alongside men and women with mental disabilities. This community would be his home until he died ten years later, and it would bring him much deep joy. However, at the moment he entered, the interruption of a friendship which had brought him a deep sense of fulfillment was tearing at the core of his identity. Nothing could console him, neither the memory of his past accomplishments as a beloved spiritual writer nor the care and solace of his other friends and community members. He wept for hours and could not sleep. From December 1987 to June 1988, he lived in daily anguish.

Slowly, Nouwen says, he could eventually “take very small steps toward life.” Frequent meetings with spiritual counselors helped, as did writing about his struggles to maintain his identity as fundamentally beloved despite all the pain he was experiencing in the moment. Years later, friends urged him to share excerpts from the journal he had kept during those dark six months. At first he thought they were too personal and raw to be of any use to others, but after rereading them and considering the idea, he finally allowed them to be published as a book of their own.

I’ve been reading that book, The Inner Voice of Love, for the last few months. My current rate is about a page a day; as Nouwen himself warns at the beginning, the lessons he learned are too intense to take in quickly. His terse reflections, the fierce yet gentle instructions to himself that helped him cling to hope, jump off the page in their vividness. To someone like me who craves approval and fears rejection, it’s like getting instructions from my time-traveling future self, a message that yes, I somehow can make it from here to there.

This story reminds me of another one, the story of a man who was born into darkness: the man born blind who appears in the Gospel of John. The disciples ask Jesus whose fault it is that this man was born with a burden to carry, a struggle to live in a world he can’t see. Did he somehow sin before he was born, or is it a punishment he’s inherited from his parents? “Neither,” replies Jesus. “This happened to him so that the glory of God could be revealed through him.” This man’s entire life, including his blindness, displays the glory of God. All along, his very struggle with darkness can shed light on God’s glory.

This story is repeated whenever someone stuck with a heavy burden wants to share the burdens of others. Whenever someone is lonely and chooses to help others feel less alone. When someone takes the dark things they should never have suffered and chooses to shed light so others will not suffer the same.

I’m watching with awe right now as this story takes place in the life of my sister. Mired in the depths of depression, which constantly steals her joy and peace of mind, she wants to share her story with others through a series of videos about her experiences. I’m blown away that even in the middle of her story, she’s already letting it deepen her compassion. Still on the path to freedom herself, she wants to help lead others out.

I’m thankful for her. Thankful to be so close to someone who is living this story. I need to live it too, the story where my suffering can itself become the raw material for healing.

Have you been inspired by someone who used their story of healing to help others? Are you going or have you gone through a similar experience?