It is no secret that the past few weeks have been difficult. Moving forward seems to require looking back sometimes, even going back. Unresolved memories of my abduction surfaced recently, and I have been required to revisit old places. It feels like touring an old battleground or an ancient ruin. There was blood shed to be sure, and there was ruin. There was a great fight, and something died there. Good and evil were at work, and a life was at stake. I’m not, however, visiting the site of another’s battle or ruin; I’m visiting mine. I have, therefore, felt vulnerable, shaky, and a little needy as I have set forth on the healing journey once again.
I do not like to feel vulnerable and needy. I do have some trusted allies; nonetheless, I prefer self-reliance even though that opposes my own creed and approach to community and friendship. How can I process what I am going through with a trusted friend if I lock myself in my house? So, I ventured forth in spite of my own fears, and I had two distinct experiences. My first experience thwarted me by only reaffirming my fears of vulnerability. I allowed myself to be transparent with someone and came away feeling distinctly “broken”. I cannot think of another word to describe my deep feelings of shame and regret. Nothing was said overtly, but sometimes it isn’t what is said–it is what is not said. It’s body language, a small criticism, an attitude, a look, a lack of empathy, a sigh. At the end of the day, I regretted leaving the house. I remember driving home, and I was talking to myself as I made my way home. Actually, I was talking to God. I said, “You know, I’m sick of feeling this way. Broken. Damaged. I’m so tired of being “that woman”. That woman with the problem.” It isn’t often that God talks back to me. Oh, I’m a big believer in God speaking to us through nature, other people, even bumper stickers, but when you hear that still, small voice so distinctly answer back in your mind (and you know undoubtedly that it’s not you answering back), it is very important to stop talking and listen. This is what I heard–“You are not broken. You are awesomely and wonderfully made. I made you. How could you break?”
Let me back up here for a moment. I took a hiatus from the American church experience about five years ago for myriad reasons. I left the church, but I did not leave my faith behind. At the time of my exit, the use of the word “broken” was very popular among Christian Evangelicals. To speak Christianese fluently, one had to use “broken” often. It might look something like this: “Oh God, we want to be broken before you.” or “We bring our brokenness to you as an offering.” or “We are broken and weary people.” You get the idea. At times it seemed that the more “broken” a person felt, the holier and more sanctified he was. What does it mean to be “broken”? Google.com has searched many online dictionaries for me, and this is a list of definitions for the adjective “broken”:
- physically and forcibly separated into pieces or cracked or split
- subdued or brought low in condition or status
- (especially of promises or contracts) having been violated or disregarded
- Sundered by divorce, separation, or desertion of a parent or parents
- Intermittently stopping and starting; discontinuous
- Weakened and infirm
- Crushed by grief
- Financially ruined; bankrupt
- Not functioning; out of order
Obviously, there are a few definitions that apply to the spiritual life of a human being. The church at large does not necessarily have it wrong. We certainly want to bring crushing grief, financial ruin, spiritual lowliness, infirmities, broken promises, and physical brokenness to God. We do not, however, want to wallow or label ourselves or others as “broken”. When I said I felt “broken”, however, I meant the last definition on the list. After all my life experiences, sometimes I just feel like I don’t work anymore. Like I’m kaput. What’s more, sometimes I have a feeling that other people think the same thing. I feel this way when well-meaning people say things like, “How can you have been through so much and still be so normal?” To me, they are really saying, “You must be really screwed-up underneath your veneer of normalcy.” Should I just have ‘Out of Order” tattooed on my forehead and call it a day? Can a person just go through too much? So, when I heard that still, small voice tell me that I am awesomely and wonderfully made, I was forced to reconsider my own opinions.
Psalm 139:14 tells us that we are awesomely and wonderfully made. I did not just fabricate that. As I meditated on this new idea that I was not a broken person, but I was, on the contrary, a whole and working person, I began to wonder what that might mean. This is what I’ve come up with, and I’m going to use images to explain it.
Look at the image above. You can probably discern the subject. Can you find the two bees? Can you see the complexity of patterns? Can you discern color? I have filtered this image, removed color, altered exposure, saturation, temperature, and contrast. I have faded the image on the edges. This image is a metaphor for how we view ourselves. Our life experiences act as filters for how we view ourselves. What might a stinging remark from your mother before prom night alter in your self-image? What about an absent father? What about a rape or an incestuous relationship? Think about my abduction experience? Think about any kind of sexual violence or trauma? Could they remove all color from your self-image leaving you with only a black and white picture of yourself? It’s very possible. If we have been exposed to terrible events or events that left us feeling out of control and terrible about ourselves, then how might we “look” to ourselves? Overexposed, colorless, shadowed, and faded? It explains why I feel broken sometimes. Even being in a fallen world has activated our filters. We are surrounded by all forms of death, destruction, poverty, illness, and suffering. If we are able to live in the world without deactivating our empathy, then we will no doubt have learned to view the world through filters. We must if we are to survive. It is often too painful otherwise.
This is the same image filtered differently. I’ve filtered out the color red. This image looks very different from the other. The bees stand out, but the petals do not. The complexity of the seeds have become more visible, and the play of the shadows is more interesting. Your life with more color, more pattern, less filtering. Some trauma has been resolved. Forgiveness has been at work here. Forward progress. There is more balance between light and dark. Less extremes. More vulnerability means more safety. Better boundaries and more peace.
This is the image in full color with very little filtering. I took this photograph yesterday evening in my backyard. This is the flower of the Russian Mammoth Sunflower. Look at the complexity of the seeds in the fruiting body and their colors. Do you see all the details and the shadows in the petals? Do you see how the light reflects off the bees’ wings? These details were impossible to see in the other images due to the effects of the filters. It does not mean that these details were not there. The nature of the flower existed. The bees were doing their work. They existed. This flower is standing majestically at about 12 feet in my backyard at this very moment tracking the sun as it moves across the sky, but you could not know this because of how I filtered the two previous images. You knew that you were looking at a flower. You did not know the color. You may not have known the genus or species. You noted the bees, but you could not notice their gossamer wings or their black and yellow thoraces. You only knew what was allowed to pass through the filters.
In the unseen or invisible world, the eternal world which will never pass away but surrounds us yet, in God’s heart and mind, we are much like this sunflower. We exist in full color in rich complexity. Remember–Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. (Psalm 139:14) We are not broken, out of order, lowly, violated, emotionally bankrupt, incomplete, separated, or crushed. Our journey in the physical or visible world is to learn to bring forth, if you will, bit by bit the invisible reality of who we really are into the visible. Essentially, step by step, we learn to see ourselves in full color and complexity rather than black and white, overexposed, and shadowy because that is who we really are regardless of what has happened to us or how we feel about ourselves. This process takes time, the help from very trustworthy allies, and an unwavering belief that you are so much more that what you currently see. You are strong, beautiful, powerful, gifted, majestic, capable, talented, complex, and so valuable.
At the end of the famous 1 Corinthians 13 there is this verse:
For now we are looking in a mirror that gives only a dim (blurred) reflection [of reality as in a riddle or enigma], but then [when perfection comes] we shall see in reality and face to face! Now I know in part (imperfectly), but then I shall know and understand fully and clearly, even in the same manner as I have been fully and clearly known and understood [by God].
This verse comes at the end of a chapter entirely devoted to the nature of God’s love. That is the perspective you must take when you read 1 Corinthians 13. This chapter is often read at weddings because we want to be able to love each other with the love that is described in this beloved chapter of the New Testament. What is profound is that God Himself loves us like this. This chapter could end in any number of ways, but it comes to a close with the announcement that what we see is only a blurry and dim reflection, a cracked and tarnished image, of what exists in the perfect reality. What’s more, as we are today, sometimes lost in the haze of an imperfect self-image often rooted in deep psychic pain, we are “fully and clearly known and understood by God”. This statement was made after an entire chapter devoted to the nature of God’s ability to love us. Human beings are never asked to do something which God Himself does not. This chapter is all about the nature of God’s love towards us. So, you see, we may not see ourselves clearly, but God does, and He loves us completely, entirely, thoroughly regardless of everything. Regardless. And, He understands you. You, my friend, are understood. That means that you are not alone.
That is what I learned last week. When I feel the temptation to feel “broken” or ashamed, I must think again. This is not an easy choice, but the question comes down to ‘who am I going to believe?’ Am I going to believe my father, my mother, my perpetrator, or even my wounded self? Well, I’m not going to believe my father, my mother, or my perpetrator. Hell, no. And, my wounded self is…well, wounded.
It’s something worth pondering as we continue to heal.