There’s nothing scarier than being vulnerable. But the church ought to be the place where we can take off our masks and receive grace.
It’s Halloween, that holiday of candy and costumes, of pretending and playing a part. My kids have been planning their outfits, and my oldest is wondering how old is too old to trick or treat.
I haven’t dressed up in a long time. The last time I can really remember being in a costume was my senior year in college. I was in the fall theatre production, which was more a collection of short sketches than a unified play. In one sketch, I was a wife attending a play with her husband, and there was a big to-do about him sneezing during the performance. And in the other, I played an old woman who sang all of her lines. Yeah, not your normal play. But, in some ways, that rather bizarre collection of stories about pivotal moments in people’s lives fit the disjointed feel of my own life.
Over the Thanksgiving break I’d gone home for the very last time. During that week I helped my dad move out of the house my family had lived in since sixth grade. We would never live there together again. My parents would sign the the divorce papers on Christmas Day that same year.
I returned to school looking just the same on the outside. But everything inside me was a mess. For the first time in my entire life I couldn’t get assignments in on time. There were days I couldn’t laugh or joke with my friends. When people asked what I was going to do when I graduated I just gave them a blank stare. I couldn’t figure out how was I going to get through the next month without falling apart.
I threw myself into that play as an escape from my own life. Instead of trying to figure out my own heart, I spent hours trying to figure out how to walk and sing like a 60-year-old. It was easier to deal with that made up world than my real one.
But the two collided on the day I came clean with our director. She had a rule that if crazy things were going on in our personal life we had to tell her. Sometimes personal-crazy comes out in weird ways on the stage and she wanted to be prepared.
Rehearsals were held in the gym which sat atop the hill our campus was spread over. I asked the director if I could walk back down to the lower campus with her. I knew I needed to tell her before we got down to the lower buildings or I never would. Walking down that long, winding hill I worked up the courage to blurt out the words: “My parents split up over the Thanksgiving break. I don’t know if this is temporary or permanent but I’m going to be okay. I just thought you should know.”
I also remember her not saying anything for what seemed like a really long time. When she did speak, her words were simple and straight to the point: “Tina, you are not okay. And you’re not going to be okay for a long time.” Those words broke something open in my heart and brought tears to my eyes.
She asked me to share my story with her over lunch. We sat in a quiet corner of the cafeteria while she asked me questions and listened to my emotion-laden answers. I don’t remember anything either of us said during that lunch conversation. But I do remember moments of looking at her and seeing tears in her eyes. I remember no longer feeling so desperately alone. I remember getting up from that table feeling like I had laid down the heaviest burden, simply because someone had allowed me to share the reality of my heart.
In her book Bittersweet, Shauna Niequist writes “ . . . when we tell the truth about our lives—the broken parts, the secret parts, the beautiful parts—then the gospel comes to life, an actual story about redemption, instead of abstraction and theory and things you learn in Sunday School.”
When I told the truth, to my director as well as to myself, it opened up a space for grace to enter in. In the midst of losing my family, I felt God meet me time and again through the caring words of professors, fellow students and my supervisors at work. It’s one of the times in my life when I could most clearly see God caring for me through others.
As we study the life of David, let us be inspired by his willingness to be real. David was a man after God’s own heart. He was a man who celebrated exuberantly, who failed profoundly, who repented deeply. He was a man who cried out in despair and confusion, and also in joy and delight. He was real. I don’t think the people around him wondered how David was really feeling about things.
So it should be with us.
We cannot receive grace if we pretend to be fine. We cannot expect others to empathize with us when they don’t know we have a need. We cannot celebrate the good in our lives if we don’t first share it. We will be weighed down by our own sorrow unless we share it.
The next time you meet with your small group or with the friends who know you best, ask these two simple questions:
What is something good in your life right now? And what is something hard?
Listen quietly, earnestly to the answers. Don’t rush the speaker. If you need to, ask questions to help you understand them more fully. But most of all, just listen to their heart.
When they share the good or the beautiful, the things that bring them delight, rejoice with them. This can be as simple as a heartfelt smile, shared laughter or words that express your happiness for them.
When what they share is hard, have a Kleenex box handy and don’t be afraid of tears, either theirs or yours. Don’t be afraid to say anything more than, “That is so hard, and I’m so glad you chose to trust me with what is in your heart.”
Let us, the church, be the people who give others the freedom to not be okay. The church should be the people with whom we celebrate the loudest, share the deepest, and support one another with the greatest grace. When we do this we are the gospel to one another and the world, a people who live deeply and vulnerably. Let us encourage one another to take off our everything-is-just-fine masks, and to share what our life, our hearts, are really like. Broken. Joyful. Messy. Confused. Hopeful. Uncertain. Real.