Friday, August 28, 2009

Discovering My Shame

After reading this post about my faith story and the history of my relationship with God, you may be wondering about something: If God has been my most intimate companion for the last 6 or 7 years, why was I so quick to assume He had betrayed me when Nathan died? Why did I even entertain the idea that He had misled me or that my prayers did not matter to Him? Didn't I know God better than that? Well, yes. And no.

I did know God well enough to know that He loved me, that I mattered to Him, that He would not mislead or betray me. But my gut responses to Nathan's death were colored by a little thing called shame. Actually, shame is not little at all and seldom innocuous enough to be called a thing. More like a living breathing entity that has haunted me for most of my life. It is Shame with a capital S.

I met Shame when I was very young. But I did not know his name. I did not even know he was separate from me. Many years later, at the age of 24, I found this quote in a book I was reading:
A pervasive sense of shame is the ongoing premise that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, unworthy, or not fully valid as a human being.
--Merle Fossum
When I was still a little girl, I came to believe deep down in my soul that I was indeed fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, and not fully valid as a human being. I probably couldn't have voiced it that way but I certainly felt it. I carried these beliefs all the way into my mid 20s, even after I had been set free from the darkness of depression. I had no idea that what I believed about myself was a lie—a lie that had been whispered to me over and over by the one called Shame. But when I read the above quote, my enemy finally had a name. And I was devastated.

After all the work I had done and all the healing God had brought about during my early 20s, the revelation of such a deep layer of brokenness left me questioning whether I had made any progress at all. It felt as if my need for healing was now even greater than when my journey began. And the truth of the matter was this: I did not know who I was apart from my Shame. The only "me" I knew was fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, not fully valid as a human being. If those things were not me at all, then who was I? What would happen if I threw out all the lies Shame had told me? Would I find that the real me was even worse than I thought? Was I brave enough and strong enough to find out? Well, no. And yes.

I may not have been brave enough but God had certainly deemed me strong enough. I picked up a copy of the book Shame and Grace: Healing the Shame We Don't Deserve by Lewis B. Smedes and began laboring through it much the way I labored through Philip Yancey's book on prayer. Never before had I read a book that so closely mirrored what I felt about myself. I found myself underlining and taking notes on every page. The first half of the book dealt with the intricacies of Shame. I learned that, surprisingly, there is a healthy form of Shame—shame with a lowercase "s," I suppose. As Smedes writes:
Only a very noble being can feel shame. The reason is simple: A creature meant to be a little less than God is likely to feel a deep dissatisfaction with herself if she falls a notch below the splendid human being she is meant to be. If we never feel shame, we may have lost contact with the person we most truly are. If we still feel the pain, it is because we are healthy enough to feel uncomfortable with being less than we ought to be and less than we want to be. This is healthy shame.
 It is this shame that calls us back to our true selves, the people we were created to be apart from this fallen world. It reminds us of who God means us to be and the ways in which we are not living up to that calling. And it is healthy shame that pushes us to grow and change and move ever so slightly closer to the image of our Creator. This shame is actually a gift.

Although the Shame that shadowed me for most of my life may have begun as healthy shame, it quickly became anything but healthy. Smedes has this to say about unhealthy Shame:
It is a false shame because the feeling has no basis in reality. It is unhealthy shame because it saps our creative powers and kills our joy. It is a shame we do not deserve because we are not as bad as our feelings tell us we are.
Unhealthy Shame is not a call back to our true selves at all—it is a condemnation from our false self. This false version of ourselves is constructed out of all the "ideals" placed on us by others. It is the person we "should" be, according to the voices of secular culture, religion without grace, and parents who do not accept us. These three forces, individually and collectively, convince us that in order to be acceptable human beings we must live up to their expectations of us. Culture tells us that to be acceptable we must be beautiful, thin, smart, wealthy, powerful, successful, etc., etc. Grace-less religion tells us we are acceptable when we do everything that is commanded and nothing that is forbidden. Un-accepting parents tell us we will be acceptable only if we do whatever they expect of us. Falling short in any or all of this, we are left with only one conclusion: We are unacceptable human beings. And we are ashamed of how greatly we fall short of being the persons we have been told we must be.

This unhealthy Shame "is about our very selves—not about some bad thing we did or said but about what we are. It tells us that we are unworthy. Totally. It is not as if a few seams in the garment of our selves need stitching; the whole fabric is frayed. We feel that we are unacceptable. And to feel that is a life-wearying heaviness."

A life-wearying heaviness, indeed. A heaviness that I carried for nearly two decades. There was no one thing that caused my Shame. It was more like a perfect storm. My personality and my spiritual gifting, the abuse and its aftermath, my experiences growing up in the church, the dynamics of my family—all of this created an ideal atmosphere to foster the growth of Shame. By the time Shame's identity became known to me, I had been weighed down for so many years I no longer knew where Shame ended and I began. And I certainly didn't know how to be free from it.

As I moved into the second half of Shame and Grace, I realized there was no way to escape Shame. The only way to be free from it was to heal it, and my healing could only be found through Grace. For me, Grace had always been just another word in the Christian vocabulary. It had no real meaning to me, at least nothing tangible. I had a vague sense that it was important to my faith, maybe even essential, but I couldn't have told you why. Smedes defines Grace this way:
  • We experience grace as pardon: We are forgiven for wrongs we have done. Pardoning grace is the answer to guilt.  
  • We experience grace as acceptance: We are reunited with God and our true selves, accepted, cradled, held, affirmed, and loved. Accepting grace is the answer to shame.  
  • We experience grace as power: It provides a spiritual energy to shed the heaviness of shame and, in the lightness of grace, move toward the true self God means us to be.  
  • We experience grace as gratitude: It gives us a sense for the gift of life, a sense of wonder and sometimes elation at the lavish generosity of God. 
While I had experienced the pardon of Grace when I set out on my spiritual journey at the age of 7, I had never moved beyond that. Without the acceptance of Grace, I had no power to defeat the lies of Shame or throw off the weight I had carried for so long. But could I really believe that God, the Giver of Grace, accepted me completely?

Lurking behind the grip of Shame is the crippling fear of rejection. The knowledge that we are unacceptable human beings is made unbearable by the great possibility that we will be abandoned by those we most need to love us. The promise of Grace is that we are accepted without the possibility of rejection, that nothing we do and nothing we are can ever make God abandon us. And to a girl who had lived her life with the ever-present, deep-seated fear of rejection, such unconditional acceptance seemed far too good to be true.

As if this acceptance wasn't hard enough to believe, Grace takes it one step further. Grace tells me that I am worthy of the acceptance it offers. How can this be? Aren't I, like all of us, just a sinful wretch deserving of God's wrath and unworthy of the Grace He offers? Well, yes. And no.

I am a sinner and, because of that, I deserve God's wrath. But I am also a human being, created in the image of God and created with infinite worth. Grace tells me I am worthy of being redeemed from my sin, worthy of being loved by my Creator, and worthy of being accepted without the possibility of rejection.

Accepted. Worthy. Loved.

I desperately wanted to believe everything Grace was telling me. And I wanted that belief to change me, heal me, set me free. But I had reached an impasse. I understood that Shame and I were separate. I understood that my only hope of healing was found in this mysterious thing called Grace. I understood that Grace accepted me completely. I even understood, at least on some level, that Grace accepted me both in spite of my un-deservedness and because of my worthiness. But I did not understand how to accept the acceptance of Grace.

Thus, after finishing the book, I put the matter aside and hoped that someday, somehow I would find a way to heal. But thankfully, and not surprisingly, my healing wasn't up to me. The One who began this work of Grace was not finished with me yet. Neither was Shame. But I'll let you guess Who had the last word.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Genesis

On the day I finished my last post, I popped in a new CD to listen to. Okay, when I say "new," I mean I bought it recently at the Goodwill and hadn't yet had a chance to listen to it. Seriously, if you are willing to spend a little time searching through the un-ordered stacks of CDs at the Goodwill, you can't beat the $2.99 price tag. I rarely buy music elsewhere these days. This particular CD was Joy Williams' 2005 release entitled Genesis. I had never listened much to Joy Williams before, other than a couple songs I heard on the radio way back when I actually used to listen to the radio. But again, the price was right, so I decided to buy it and give it a listen. I'm glad I did. And I'm quite certain it was no coincidence that I found myself listening to this CD just hours after finishing one of my most difficult, emotional, and progress-inducing blog posts to date.

The songs on this album are about redemption, growth, becoming who we're meant to be, coming out of hiding, not allowing others' judgments to keep us from doing what God has called us to do, choosing to stay where God has placed us even when everything in us tells us to run. These songs are the story of my life. Or at least the story God has been writing of late.

Here are some of the lyrics that spoke to me:

We are not that different from each other

We just want someone to discover

Who we really are when we drop our guard

(from "We")

To anyone who thinks they're not good enough

To anyone who feels unworthy of love

To anyone who ever closed the door

Closed their eyes and locked themselves away

You don't have to hide

You don't have to hide anymore

(from "Hide")

I cry, Father, Father, forgive me

You say, Child, I already have

You are beautiful

Beautiful redemption

(from "Beautiful Redemption")

But the song that most caught my attention was "Say Goodbye," from which the album actually derives its name:

Say goodbye, say goodbye

To the you I knew before

Say hello, say hello to a new beginning

Say goodbye, say goodbye

To the you I knew before

This is your genesis

When I looked up "genesis," I found the definition "a coming into being." And I can think of no better way to describe the incredible growth and healing that have taken place in my life over the past several years. This is my coming into being. This is my genesis. And I hear my God saying, "You are beautiful, Courtney. Beautiful redemption."

(If you are interested in hearing my favorite songs from this album, I've added a music player to the sidebar of my blog, just below the "About Me" section. I've set it up so that it won't start playing automatically (a pet peeve of mine!), and all you have to do is hit the play button if you want to listen to the songs I've added. I'm excited to be able to share the music I'm listening to and blogging about and hope you will enjoy it as well.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Deepest Layer


After coming to a new understanding about God's sovereignty and its impact on prayer, I remember saying to a friend, "I no longer have any objections to prayer—if there was a God I wanted to pray to, I would pray." Did you catch that? If there was a God I wanted to pray to.

From the very beginning of this journey, every step toward healing has felt like a step backward. Each revelation has marked the end of one struggle and the start of another. When I first began, it was my grief over Nathan's death that needed to be processed. But as I moved through my grief, it became clear that it was my understanding of prayer that was keeping me stuck. As I examined the issue of prayer, I found that underneath this lay my beliefs about God's sovereignty. And after laboring to form new beliefs about sovereignty, I came face to face with the deepest layer of all: God Himself.

Although God was likely pursuing me from the day I was born, my relationship with Him didn't begin until I was 7 years old. I read a children's book about how to become a Christian, complete with simple steps to follow, and I did what every obedient little girl would do. I admitted my sinfulness, accepted the death of Jesus as payment for my sin, and asked Him to "come into my heart."

And I had no idea what I had done.

I only knew that every person in my life was a "Christian" and I wanted to be one, too. As the pastor's daughter, church was quite literally a second home and it never occurred to me that there were actually people in the world who did not believe in God or go to church. Believing in God was a natural as breathing. And in my 7-year-old mind, accepting Christ as my savior was just a normal part of life.

There is a part of me that wishes I had been more aware of what I was doing when I accepted God's invitation into relationship, that I had understood the significance or even my need, that my decision had been more about God and less about other people. But I have come to trust in the path God chose for me all those years ago. Looking back now, I realize His timing was absolutely perfect. God called me to Himself at exactly the time when He knew I would say "yes." Maybe I didn't know what that "yes" would mean for my life, but I am grateful that I said it.

You see, by the time I turned 10, my life had begun to unravel. I came face-to-face with human depravity, and in some ways, I grew up too quickly. In other ways, I simply tucked away the little girl I used to be and became somebody else. Somebody stronger. Somebody braver. Somebody who could survive.

Or at least I tried.

Deep down I knew I was still the broken little girl who desperately needed to be rescued, protected, loved. When I was 12, I considered taking my own life to escape the pain. And I never stopped considering it until I was in my early 20s. What held me back all those years? Sometimes fear. Sometimes family. Sometimes friends. But always God.

During those years when the darkness covered me like a suffocating fog, my relationship with God could only be described as a desperate attachment. The unquestioning acceptance of His existence that I had known from birth never left me. And for the most part, He was the only One I had to hold onto when my world crumbled into pieces. I often begged Him to lessen the pain and set me free. Sometimes I begged Him to end my life. Sometimes I stopped waiting for Him and resolved to do it myself. But I never did. Why? There is no why. There is only God.

I am almost certain that if I had not said "yes" at the tender age of 7, I would have been too broken to ever say it at all. And if I had never said "yes," I likely would not have lived much beyond my 12th birthday. There has been plenty of time to understand the significance of that decision I made 20 years ago, plenty of time to recognize my need for God, plenty of time to embrace this relationship as the center of my existence. But there was only one moment to change the course of my life, to rescue me from death, to save me from myself. One moment. Yes, God's timing was absolutely perfect.

The story of my restoration began ever so slowly when I was 17. But much like my current journey of healing, it was not an easy or straightforward path. And most of the time, I didn't even know it was happening. It started with forgiveness. Through a power not my own, I forgave the one who had stolen my childhood and plunged me into a darkness of soul that no person—and certainly no child—should ever have to face.

Then, at age 19, I moved to Cannon Beach, Oregon, to spend a year at a little place called Ecola Bible School. I lived in community with fellow believers who loved and accepted me beyond anything I had ever known. I was exposed to the scripture and teachings about my faith on a daily basis. I was challenged to understand what I believed and choose this faith as my own. I was given time to pray, to reflect, to grow. And somewhere along the way, I came face to face with my Savior. Not the Jesus of my childhood. Not the Jesus everyone around me believed in. Not the Jesus who was just a normal part of life. Not even the Jesus I desperately clung to in my darkest hours. I met the Jesus who loved me before time began, who willing laid down His life to pay my ransom, who knit me together in my mother's womb, who pursued me from birth and brought me into relationship with Him when the time was right, who drew me back from the edge of death over and over again, who brought about the miracle of forgiveness to set me free from my past, and who took me to the one place where I would finally come to know Him. I met the Jesus who is both God of the Universe and Lover of My Soul. And I fell head-over-heels in love.

Without a doubt, this became the turning point in my relationship with God. I began to desire Him more than life itself. I wanted to know Him and be known by Him. I wanted to please Him with my life. I wanted His purposes to be accomplished in me. And God became my most intimate companion; the only One who knew me completely, knew my brokenness, knew the darkness of my past and still wanted to be in relationship with me. It was a welcome and glorious shift in my spiritual journey.

But the darkness had not yet relinquished its hold. After returning home from my year at Ecola, I descended into a depth and breadth of despair greater than any I had known before. I hit bottom in ways I didn't expect, ways that scared me, ways I still regret. And once again, I found myself standing on the edge between life and death. In some ways, I think the weight of this despair was harder to bear simply because I had finally tasted hope, tasted love, tasted God. In other ways, I believe I survived this final descent into darkness precisely because I knew what it felt like to have hope, to be loved, to be intimate with the God of Creation.

I have heard it said that the night is darkest just before the dawn breaks. And the dawn did break, nearly a year after leaving Ecola. Before I reached my 22nd birthday, the darkness that plagued me for more than a decade was finally defeated. And the God who knew my darkness and loved me still, became the God who knew my darkness, loved me still, and moved heaven and earth to set me free.

In the five years that have followed my deliverance, God has continued to be my closest and most intimate companion. Through heartache and healing, loss and restoration, mystery and revelation, I have grown and changed more in this handful of years than I ever imagined possible. Along with that, my view of God has been changing, too—not because God is changing but because my understanding of Him is both widening and deepening. Never has this been truer than in the wake of Nathan's death. But God's revelation of Himself this past year has not been subtle or slow. It has been earth shattering and relationship testing. And for a time, I did not know if He was still the God I loved.

I can assure you, He is not.

He is so much more.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Poetry: Reading and Writing

This past week I started reading my friend Amanda's newly published book of poetry, Swimming in the Wild, Wide Ocean. Featuring poems from the last 20 years of Amanda's life, the writing is diverse in both content and form. And I am finding it hugely inspirational. I am interested in exploring different styles of writing with my poetry, although I will be the first to admit that I readily "get in a rut" and stick with what I know and what is comfortable. I hope in the near future (I use the term "near" rather loosely, of course) to find a book or website with writing prompts and exercises to assist me in my desire to branch out and try new things with my poetry. In the meantime, I wrote this poem over the weekend in an effort to be a little shorter and bit more ambiguous than I typically am in my poetry:

Reaching to Be Found

Reaching out

Finding nothing

Where are you?

Too much has happened

Too many things I don't understand

If I find you

Will you take me back?

Do I want that?

Reaching out

Finding cold, hard stone

This is what stands between us

A wall made higher

By months and months apart

Wider by words that can't be un-spoken

Stronger by everything you are

And all that I am not.

Reaching out

Needing you

Find me

Find me

Find me

Feedback is welcome, of course. You can tell me if you love it, hate it, or are ambivalent—I can handle it, honest. And if you are a fellow poetry writer or reader, you should definitely order a copy of Amanda's book!