In my middle life, I wondered if the purpose of my life was simply as a cautionary tale.  I had chosen poorly so often, with such severe consequences, I wondered if all I could offer was to be an example of what not to do.

 

Although self-condemnation threatens to whip that notion into a froth of depression, it obscures the grain of truth within: My life holds meaning for you. My voice matters because we are all connected.  Paul compared us to a body: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Cor. 12:26)  Each voice, each individual’s story, can enhance or damage our connection.

 

My friend Kelly Bean speaks often, in her work with African Road, about this connection through our stories. The people of Rwanda have experienced terrible lessons to achieve peace and reconciliation that we Americans would well-advised to heed.  In the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, Kelly posted this from New Hope for Girls in Tanzania: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IJ0NQfHl4fE&feature=youtu.be

This family of 48, compromised mostly of girls rescued from slavery and sex trafficking, has seen more than its share of suffering.  But one of their first responses to the pandemic was to send encouraging words to those of us unaccustomed to hardship.  I find this incredibly moving.

 

If we humans are going to progress as a species, if we are going to protect our planet and not destroy ourselves, we absolutely have to acknowledge we are all in this together.  We can no longer afford to keep squabbling.  Today I saw an ad for an organization called The Epoch Times, that at first seemed an over-the-top mockery of a far-right political agenda.  I was halfway through when I realized it was seriously promoting outrageously paranoid claims, seeding distrust and division under a guise of informed reporting.  It made me incredibly sad, both for the viewers who would believe it and the short-sighted agenda behind it.  Is power and money worth the damage we are doing to ourselves as humans?  This is the kind of scenario I envision when we fall before Jesus, saying, “Lord, Lord, did we not vote to promote a pro-life agenda on the Supreme Court?  Did we not march to protect the sanctity of marriage and traditional values? Did we not tithe and attend church and sing in the choir, even when the government tried to forbid us?”  And will Jesus say, “I never knew you”?

 

What we do to one another matters. If our words are full of blame, suspicion and hatred for those who think differently, we end up hardening our own hearts. Jesus prefaced this warning with “do to others what you would have them do to you” and “in the same way you judge others, you will be judged.”  For those of us who like Biblical principles, the latter is a good one.  It isn’t a threat, it is more a description of nature.  The measure we use, especially if it is perfectionism or performance, ends up being the shadow we live under.  Our own words mock us when they are applied to our lives.  Who hasn’t vowed as a child not to be like our parent in a particular way, only to find the very words we despised emerging toward our own children?

 

When Jesus told us to be perfect, he wasn’t talking about performance, he was talking about love.  Love beyond what’s expected.  Love extravagantly.  Give grace to others like Jesus gives to you.  I recently read the comments on a friend’s Facebook post (not doing that again anytime soon.) What struck me, having been away from evangelicalism for awhile, was the hate veiled in Christian-ese.  “Bless her heart, we don’t know how she has strayed so far from truth. She used to be a good Christian.”  Wow.  How often do you hear judgement couched as concern? Condemnation dressed in Bible verses?  

 

I remember speaking to someone standing with his yellow picket sign outside the lines at Comic-Con.  With his handheld speaker, he was informing everyone in line that they were going to hell.  For those of us who believe love wins more people to Jesus’ kingdom, it was disturbing to hear the anger spewing from this brother.  As far as I could see, most people were giving him a wide berth.  I stepped up to ask him how many people he’d converted with this approach.  He replied, “Thousands.”  

 

“Really?” I asked (a little disbelievingly, I’ll admit.)

 

“The word of the Lord shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I send it,” he replied. For him, that answered my question and he raised his bullhorn.

 

Magic words.

 

I stopped writing for awhile, keenly aware I am venturing into territory fraught with conflict.  Faith is something that one can rarely be argued into or out of.  And truly, no one knows what is in our hearts but God alone.  Sometimes even we can only discern our own true intent with the Spirit’s counsel.

 

For myself, I know there was a time in my life where I used Bible verses as cover for my own uncertainty.  I believed God; I wanted to be a faith-filled, “no compromise” Christian. Yet I kept running into disconnects.  I sorrowfully informed my college friend that although God loved her unconditionally, she could not be both a Christian and a lesbian.  I burned my autograph collection because I wanted to burn idolatry from my heart; my bold actions shouted down the inkling that my idolatry had only switched from TV stars to Christian celebrities.  

 

I heard sermon after sermon justifying the Old Testament righteousness of murdering thousands. I followed the mental gymnastics of reconciling the wrath and mercy of God.  Simplistic answers to complicated questions and complicated answers to simple questions, all told with a beneficent smile and a pat on the head.  And in the end, the catch-all “God is a mystery” and “you have to have faith.”

 

I still believe those answers.  I know there are spiritual dimensions that I cannot readily perceive.  I know that I am not the center of the universe and I must trust that my Creator sees and does more than I can imagine.  But I also know that He invites me to come and reason together with Him. I know that Jesus told us over and over to look beyond outward appearances to the heart of a person’s behavior.  

 

Jesus did not give us magic words, however much he is quoted in this vein.  Jesus gave us an example of a life completely surrendered.  Jesus spent time alone with His Father, then only did what He saw His Father doing.  

 

What would my life look like if I did that?  

 

Why is that such a frightening proposition?

 

It exposes the holes in my faith.  Could I sit still long enough to listen?  What if I can’t hear anything? What if God doesn’t want to talk to me?  What if He does?  Will I hear His disappointment with me? What if He asks more of me than I want to give? 

 

That’s some uncomfortable reality right there.  

 

Laying my heart bare like this is revelatory only to me; God already knew what I was covering with my busyness. It takes courage to lay it all down and sit before Him.  It takes trust.  

 

Not many of us are so thoroughly convinced of God’s love for us, despite what we sing on Sunday mornings.  It takes inner work to move through our parental wounds to know, experientially know, God’s deep welcome, His delight in us.  I often wonder if at the core of our squabbling with each other is a sibling rivalry that can only be healed with the assurance of our Father’s abiding acceptance of each of us.  To know that I am thoroughly treasured “just as I am” in this moment brings a solid peace and an invitation of freedom.  If we no longer have to worry about being good enough, about earning our acceptance, we can look beyond our squabbling to explore the kind of love Jesus knew.  

 

When I was in junior high school, I was bullied.  It was in the first years of racial integration and tensions were high. I’d like to meet whoever thought it was a great social experiment to put together teenagers, fresh from homes filled with 1970’s racial distrust, without guidance or supervision.   I was near the bottom of the pecking order anyway: shy, mostly friendless, awkward in appearance and socially.  A trio of black girls found their superiority by making my life miserable. With threats of violence and ugly humor, I was persecuted daily.  I lived in fear.  Stories from the high school of knifings in the restrooms haunted me.  Confused, afraid, ashamed, I hovered adjacent to larger groups and calculated routes to ensure I would never be caught anywhere alone. I dared not use the restroom for fear of being “jumped.” For several years, I lived with a series of “mysterious”  kidney infections rather than telling my parents that I held my urine eight hours every day.  My Bible told me to pray for my enemies.  So I did.  I turned the other cheek, sometimes literally.  For three years, I prayed daily, for them and for the persecution to cease.  With a child’s faith, I did not understand why God did not answer my prayers.  Without knowing specifics, my youth group leader’s advice was to persist and “pray without ceasing.”

 

I learned early in life that theology matters. Even as I know God held my faith as precious, still it was my own misunderstanding that allowed myself to be used as a punching bag for years. My fear of the bullies twisted Jesus’ words in ways He never intended. I tried to make an overwhelming situation have a martyr’s significance. But Jesus never advocated for abuse. In that teaching, he was revealing a standard of loving that went beyond expectations.  He was preparing us to recognize a love that exceeds our tiny boxes.  For it is only in receiving such a love, in letting it make its home in us, that we can hope to extend it to others.   

 

Perhaps it is a schoolgirl’s rage that rises up in me even now when I see people in power using Scripture to manipulate others for their own benefit.  The acceptance of women and minorities being told they are less than especially irks me.  Was it only coincidence that, when I was in junior high, the “women’s libbers” movement was treated with disdain in my household? Not only by my father and male relatives, but my mother and church ladies spoke against those bra-burning hippies who belittled all my mother’s hard work as a “housewife.”  I was told feminism, lumped in with socialism and humanism, was a dangerous work of the devil, designed to upend a perfectly good traditional social order created by God himself.  Male and female roles were already clearly defined and anyone who tried to muddy those waters was either hopelessly pagan or deluded.

 

Was it wrong for me to be bullied? Did I deserve the abuse? Those answers, so clear now, were not as obvious at the time.  Today, the psychological damage caused by bullying is well documented. (Yet, even now, in some circles a “survival of the fittest” and “boys will be boys” attitude still prevails.)  My evangelical upbringing pointed out every Sunday that I was a worm, that I deserved eternal hellfire. As a female, I was never encouraged to advocate for myself.  My bullies attested that I was an object for derision.  God’s silence in the face of my prayers confirmed it.  

 

This is how lies take hold.  In the childhood of our psyches, we collect clues from family, faith and the world around us.  It makes sense, even if it doesn’t seem quite right.  Up is down; God is loving and hating; good comes from bad so maybe bad is good? It’s all mixed up with faith and mystery and a pastor tells us with assurance that this is what God says.  Who are we to argue with someone who went to seminary, someone who has such an obviously closer connection with the Almighty? We are worms, after all.  Saved by grace through faith and that not of ourselves.

 

And we, who would never abuse a child, shake our heads at photos of children in cages.  We, who give generously, look away from the immigrant “situation.”  It’s all so political, who knows what is really true.  We’ve been told for generations now that the “liberal” media is not to be trusted.  We’ve been told a lot of things, from people with a lot of power.  From our pulpits. Our social media. We suspect not everything the president says is true but that’s politics.  And we’re supposed to honor our leaders, right?  The Bible says that, right?  

And now.  A worldwide pandemic.  Added to the confusion is the very real threat of death.  I’m okay today, but what about tomorrow?  The Bible says do not worry.  Leaders are arguing, and my patience is less with them.  If I get this virus, if I die, I could be standing before Jesus this year. Has my faith been enough?  Have I been enough in this life to prepare me for what lies ahead?

I bury the questions beneath layers of busyness.  

Until God whispers, “come.”

 Where to begin my story?

 

Does it begin with my birth? My parents’? Their parents?  In this tapestry that is America, that is humanity, where do the stories that walk among us begin and end?

 

It is May 2020.  Covid-19, a literal worldwide pandemic, has kept us isolating in our homes for the past two months.  In a failure of federal leadership, some American states have begun re-opening despite medical experts’ predictions that this will lead to more deaths.  It is a crisis of unprecedented proportions: a political crisis, a medical crisis, a human crisis that has revealed both the best and the worst of us.

 

In recent years, I have begun to discover the value of my own voice.  I have begun to share some of the wisdom I’ve gleaned from my life experiences.  Today my voice seems very small.  Why begin writing now, when the world as I have known it could be ending?  When I could be one cough away from my own mortality?

 

Perhaps that is the best reason to write.  If a million of us are going to die this year, that could be a million stories untold, a million truths unheard.

 

So here I begin anew.  My story.  My truth.  For what it’s worth to my family, my friends, I will tell what I am as well as I can.  If there is indeed power in vulnerability, then let my voice be heard:

His name was William Sweat.  My father’s grandmother’s grandfather. Born before America, around 1773 in South Carolina.  He was “counted as white” in an 1860 Tennessee census, although ten years before, he and his wife Lucinda were recorded as “mulatto.”  His father Benjamin and grandfather (also William) were named in a “Rogue’s List” of “free negroes and mulattoes that infest that county and annoy its inhabitants”  in October 1773. 

In the late 1700’s, the Sweat family moved from South Carolina to Tennessee.  William served as a private in the War of 1812, finally receiving a pension at age 98. William could neither read nor write. He lived to the age of 100. And William Sweat was “one of the biggest land owners and largest slave holder in Campbell Co., Tennessee.”

 

A person of color who owned slaves?  I’ve since learned it wasn’t all that unusual, but my first foray into ancestry.com confirmed what I’ve always known: my family is complicated. 

Apparently the racism embedded in our family history comes not just from our Scotch-Irish roots but from our native American ancestors who sought to differentiate themselves from the even more oppressed status of “Negro” in the Jim Crow south. My cousin has traced our American roots into the mid-1600’s (and before, evidently).  Our (many-great’s) grandmother was Margaret Cornish, thought to be one of the “twenty and odd” Angolans stolen by privateers from a Portuguese slave ship in 1619. A year before the Mayflower, one of the first Africans brought to (not yet) America, stolen by pirates, sold as an indentured servant at age nine. Our (many-great’s) grandfather was Robert Sweat.  I haven’t yet been able to confirm if Robert was an English immigrant to Jamestown or a Native American –the Sweat surname is listed on several tribal registers from that area — but he was a church member. In 1640, when Robert Sweat “hath begotten with Child a negro woman servant (Margaret) belonging unto Lieutenant Sheppard”, Robert was ordered to perform “public penance in the divine service at James City Church”.  Margaret was sentenced to be “whipt at the whipping post.”  The pregnant black lady was whipped —  white supremacy and patriarchy — traditional American values?!  If trauma is truly inherited in our genes, I’ve got at least 400 years worth to work through.

Although my ancestors did fight against the British in the American Revolution, we are not blue-bloods. My family is full of “good ole boys” who love Nascar and are roughly divided over God and beer.  We are hillbillies, who didn’t emerge from the hills and hollers of Kentucky and Tennessee until my parents’ generation, by which time our nonwhite roots had been purged from bloodlines and most memories.    William’s granddaughter was named America Sweat.  She bore 14 children, including stillborn triplets named Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego. (I kid you not.)  Her husband, if my cryptic uncle is to be believed, displayed some aberrant sexual behavior.  

 

Whispers.  Innuendo.  I doubt my family history is either better or worse than anyone else’s but I learned early that there are things we do not discuss:  Sex. Mental illness. Racism. Our emotions. Finances.  Religion. Actually, the list of things we can discuss is much shorter: the weather. Other people’s shortcomings.  

 

I begin this recounting with a caveat: the reminder that this is my story.  My perceptions, my emotions, my thoughts.  I read once that no two children have the same parents.  Our parenting changes with each child, with the relationship between us and within ourselves.  My sisters may not agree with my perceptions or conclusions about our family.  My cousins may remark that I missed things glaringly obvious to them.  That’s okay.  

 

It has taken me a lot of years to accept that subjective truth can be as valid as objective truth.  In our early marriage (and okay, yesterday), Michael had to often repeat that my feelings were legitimate just because they were my feelings. My brilliant daughter can draw a straight line from my emotional need to be justified through the Age of Reason back to Ancient Greek dualism and some pretty messed up ideas of Aristotle (like women and slaves having no souls.)

 

When you live under the idea that right and wrong, good and bad, is an ever-constant judgement in which you fall far short, life can be a discouraging, often desperate, trek.  As a sensitive hyper-vigilant child, I could not articulate my particular philosophy of life. But I gathered its parts through what I saw and felt deeply.

 

A large portion of my adult thought life has been given to re-examining those conclusions I made as a child.  In my childish mind, the world was filled with potential dangers, God was an angry judge and people were not trustworthy.  As much as I may have wished it so, I did not wake up one morning to discover a beautiful secure space occupied by a loving Creator and people filled with good intentions.  This is not to say I have not found these things, only that they did not arrive magically.

 

When my daughter was not yet a day old, I held this amazing person with all the tenderness and terror a new parent’s hormones can contain.  I couldn’t believe the hospital would permit us to just take her home, without some kind of proof-of-competency exam.  For my driver’s license, I had to prove I could drive responsibly.  How could we be allowed to take sole responsibility for this precious being with her soft skin and old-soul eyes?  I prayed that day, fully conscious of my own struggles within my family.  I prayed that the generational issues I had noted, from my grandparents to me, would stop with me. Addictive behaviors, insecurity, anger, depression, sexual and self-esteem issues. I prayed that my daughter would be protected.

 

God has reminded me of my prayer many times over the past thirty years.  He has honored that prayer, but not in the manner I intended.  I wanted magic.  I wanted Him to take it all away.  I wanted the problems to not be problems anymore, instantly.

 

What I’ve received has been healing by inches.  Three steps forward, eight steps back.  God has allowed me to accompany Him on a journey to discover not only the nature of these issues but sometimes the roots as well. Dropping into the past with present perspective is always a tricky business.  I invite you to witness my journey and I promise to share as honestly as I can.  

 

Clinical depression.  Such a sterile term for a tempest of emotions.  For me, major bouts are cyclical but there is a persistent low-lying depression that has been a daily cloud for most of my life.  Medication helps, therapy helps, prayer helps.  What doesn’t help, even though I keep doing it, is berating myself. I try to will myself into not being depressed. 

I once heard someone use the analogy of comparing mental illness to physical injury.  Imagine someone who has been hit by a truck and is lying in traction in a hospital bed.  It would be ridiculous to yell at that person, to tell him to get moving, shake it off and be productive.  Yet because “it’s all in my head,” I continually try to convince my brain to be not broken.

 

As an intuitive, super-sensitive person, I often absorb the feelings of those around me, even those in the world at large.  Since 2016,  I’ve experienced an increasing struggle with anxiety and feelings of discord.  With Covid-19, the strength of what I’m feeling is “unprecedented.” Grief, with all its accompanying stages (except resolution). Uncertainty, sadness. Even an unexpected gratitude amidst the fear, loss and anger. 

 

And depression.  It hit again a few weeks ago, a particularly nasty bout.  Color and light drained from my world as energy drained from my body and hope drained from my mind.  I knew that God and hope were still there, but they were as hidden as the sun behind days of black clouds and constant thunderstorms.  It felt like life would always be this dark existence.  I stayed in bed for hours, condemning myself for my laziness.  It took every ounce of willpower to get up to forage for food.  I skirted the house like a ghost, unwilling to contaminate my family with the darkness. The self-condemnation shifted to my food choices, usually sugar, salt and fat-laden, microwaved at best.  I ate in front of the TV, where I remained for more hours.  Curled in on myself, in the solace of unthinking and the distraction of badly-written drama, I could sometimes keep at bay the guilt that reminded me how worthless I was.  The litany of my poor choices compared to others’ more worthy lives kept me on the couch until bedtime.  Still, another four or five hours passed before sleep allowed my broken brain to be consumed sometime in the early dawn.

 

Even as I report how I have existed the past few weeks, I feel shame and guilt.  How privileged am I to complain about how I can lie around for hours? People with real problems have to deal with depression and how to work enough to buy the food I so easily condemn.  I don’t deserve the life I have.  I don’t deserve anything….

 

And so it goes.  Grains of truth wrapped in lies. Shame. Suffering.  Unbidden, the phrase “Lincoln’s melancholy” comes to mind, reminding me that this has a name, melancholy. Depression.  Immediately, my mental accuser berates me for comparing myself to Lincoln, who did such good in the world, while I am such a disappointment.  Surely God is just as disgusted with me.  He’s given me such blessing and I have failed.  Done little of eternally significant value.  I am the unworthy servant; He should take my talents and give them to someone who invests more wisely. Will I be cast into the outer darkness? I deserve it, worthless piece of…

 

On Monday, I told Michael I keep hoping I’ll wake up one morning and find the depression lifted.  But every day is the same.  And I recognize that my own self-sabotage perpetuates the problem: skipping meals and meds, staying up all night, foregoing hygiene and general self-care.  I feel worthless and that is how I treat myself.  I am a hedgehog, curled up in self-protection, not wanting to puncture anyone but afraid of more hurt.

 

Michael is gentle with me, as are my children.  No one else is as bothered by my lack of productivity as I am.  Michael reminds me it is okay to ask for help when I need it.  He makes me a peanut butter sandwich.  His care emboldens me to respond to a few texts, informing my friends that I’m struggling.  Their response is immediate and supportive.  I turn off my phone.  What is wrong with me?  Why can’t I just receive their kindness?  Why do gentle words make me weep even more?

 

Still, I know they are lifting me in prayer.  

 

Tuesday, the first day in a while, the weight is less.  My actions do not change but my heart feels a bit lighter.  I turn my phone on and read the texts.  I let the love bathe me.  I read a poem in my email, its title capturing my attention:

 

When I am tired

 

O ceaseless God, sometimes I am tired.

I get tired of serving when the need is so great.

I grow weary of loving the dying,

healing the shattered,

rejoicing with the hopeless.

I tire of caring for those who do not care,

and forgiving the unrepentant.

I am spent, crying for justice to unhearing ears.

I am not a strong horse, but only a little burro, God,

and I can’t carry the whole load.

 

Beloved, you are smaller than that:

a tiny blue butterfly

in a blossoming tree.

I do not ask you to transform the tree:

only to do your work

in the bloom where you find yourself,

for there, in that labor,

which is enough for one butterfly,

the nectar of my delight revives you,

and the whole tree rejoices.

 

I reflect a while on those lines.  Beloved. I can be one tiny butterfly, in the bloom where I find myself.  The poet, Steve Garnaas-Holmes, has a heart after God’s own.  Once again, his reflection of God’s love touches my own heart and I find myself hungry for the nectar of God’s delight to revive me.

 

Today is Wednesday.  Today the sun is shining and after I get up, I do not return to bed.  I feel raw, shaky, like with the chill of the first cold cloth after the fever has broken. I have enough energy to count out my meds into a pill dispenser, a task that felt overwhelming two days ago. I swallow my thyroid medication.  I go downstairs to find breakfast. I eat a banana with my pop-tart.  

 

I am cautiously optimistic.  Was it the prayer? The poem? Was asking for help, letting in that bit of light,  enough to dispel the darkness? Or have my brain’s chemicals finally balanced enough to end the cycle?  It is still too fresh to risk looking too deeply; I fear being pulled back into the pit. 

 

I talk to Patti, my spiritual director, today.  Her kind words are more of God’s nectar.  She reminds me that depression is not failure.  That God and hope are still shining, will not be long obscured by the clouds.  That the grace I give others to be their own lovely and flawed selves, I can extend to myself.

 

Hope, like the sun, peeks into my life today.