Today Matters. Especially now.

These are just some words on a page I couldn’t keep to myself anymore. Unedited and unadulterated, unmasked from the feelings of adequacy and politeness that keep my pen chained to my lips, where I have to give it permission to say something.

I’m tired. The levy is breaking.

I remember the first time I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. I was in 3rd grade and we watched a movie, 20 kids crowded around a 20-inch computer screen squinting at the black and white images as they tried to teach us a history we couldn’t understand. I felt the weight of it sitting on my chest as the story progressed, recognizing the building waves of tension that swelled before my little eyes. I knew it mattered on a scale I couldn’t see yet, that something in his words had shifted the whole of America, but I couldn’t understand why.

There were only two black students in our class. I was the only white one who cried. It felt like I was watching his death live, this man I’d just fallen in love with ripped out of the world only 30 minutes after entering mine. It felt like they’d assassinated hope itself. My 8-year-old brain refused to accept that this man with his strong words and refusal to give up could somehow not be on the earth anymore, and the dream I had of joining him on his journey to justice—wherever it led—collapsed in my lap.

But the heavy reality of what I learned did not remain on me. Distracted by recess and lunch and my white life, I forgot about the unforgettable man I learned about that day. I never asked my parents why it mattered so much what he did. I did not swallow the whole truth of lynching and the KKK and police brutality and white supremacy and segregation when they taught it to me in school. I turned my eyes away from this ugly history—easy to do when it didn’t affect me. I was a college student before I remembered the heavy weight that 3rd grade video left on me a decade before, before I blinked my eyes and stared for a second at the reality of racism.

Ashamed, I admit that this year is the first year…maybe in my entire quarter-century life, that I have really thought about Martin Luther King’s day, what it means for history, what it means for the present, what it means for so many people in this country and around the world. The way it must make some grandmothers sob to remember how he had a dream, and how it seemed to be torn from them when he was killed. The way it must enrage parents to see that, despite his dream being 50 years old at this point, their children are still treated differently for the color of their skin. I cannot begin to fathom how today makes black people feel. Because me, with my white skin, I was privileged enough not to have to think about what today means for 25 years. I am privileged enough to forget what color I am when I go out into the world, because I’m the “right” color. The only experience I know is privilege, and it took me 25 years to know to call it privilege.

I went to Williamsburg, Virginia last week. At Colonial Williamsburg, I toured a house that was built in the early 1700s, owned by a man named Peyton Randolph. The tour guide, dressed in 1700s-garb, explained that while Randolph was fighting for the freedom of America, he owned close to 1,000 black people. He and his wife went so far as to have “manservants” who attended them 24 hours a day, William Henry and his wife. William and his wife slept on mats outside of the Randolph’s bedroom in case their white masters needed a drink in the middle of the night. The tour guide explained that working inside the house was actually worse than working in the fields, because you never got to rest. You never got to take the mask off. You were a slave every hour of your life, not even your sleep was your own. Do you know how we know that they had manservants, or how many slaves they owned? Because they had to mark them down as inventory. Next to how much sugar or coffee or tobacco they had, they had to write down how many people they owned. Because of the snow, we didn’t get to go into the backyard to see where the slaves slept and worked. Really, I don’t know if I could have stomached seeing it.

You learn in school about slavery, but I don’t carry around that history on my back. I carry my privilege. It is so disturbingly easy to go about your life and never think about the reality of slavery. In just 100 years after slavery was made legal in the colonies, the state of Virginia alone had over 100,000 slaves. Black people were over half of the damn population, you guys. This happened, and it didn’t even end that long ago. The Civil War was in the late 1800s! That’s how long it took us to choose human freedom over money! Walking around that house, seeing the mats they would have slept on, looking at the sitting room where Randolph discussed how to gain freedom from Britain while his manservant stood in the corner, waiting to attend to him… Suddenly, I have a glimpse of why today matters so much. Why #BlackLivesMatter matters so much. Because I cannot fathom anyone thinking less of me because of the color of my skin, and the least I can do is recognize that black people do. They do.

Racism is real. I am racist. We are all racist, whether we realize it or not. We’ve been raised on stereotypes and taught by the media to believe certain things about certain colors and have seen mostly white princesses, TV stars, movie stars, presidents, have been subconsciously made to believe that white is better. I know it’s a hard pill to swallow, but it is real, just like our white privilege is real. And we need to be able to stare in the face of this reality in order to change it. This past Sunday my preacher talked about how a white guy approached him after one of his sermons and said, “Man, when you talk about all that race stuff, it really feels like you’re white-shaming me.” And my preacher said, of course we feel shame. Because sin always leads to feelings of shame, and our treatment of blacks is DRENCHED in sin. You know why this post is probably making you feel outrageously uncomfortable, why I used to turn my eyes away from the truth of white supremacy? Because racism is real, and we feel the shame of that and we respond by either denying it or hiding from it.

I’m done hiding. I will never, ever know what the black experience is like. But I am done pretending that we’re all the same, that we all have the same opportunities, that we all treat each other the same, that there is no racism. If we’re going to make any difference at all, we need to at least be willing to recognize that Martin Luther King’s dreams HAVE NOT been realized and it is OUR JOB to make them a reality. Black and white and brown and HUMAN, together, together, recognizing the hurt that has been caused and owning up to the fact that we see color and we spread stereotypes and we are privileged and desiring to reconcile, to fight for equality, to care about our black brothers and sisters and listen to their stories, their experiences, what is offensive and what is real.

Today matters so much. Black lives matter so much.

If you’ve read this far, please, please, stop listening to this little white girl who knows nothing and read the following quotes from Black speakers and artists and actors and really feel their words. Stop for a minute and believe them, let them resonate. And let this be the beginning of listening. Because there is so, so much more that can be said on this, but we need to start somewhere.

“We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., I have a dream.

 

“We have waited for more than three hundred and forty years for our God-given and constitutional rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. I guess it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say “wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she cannot go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos, “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice where they experience the bleakness of corroding despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

 

“Police brutality is all in your mind
And the tactics that they use only look worse in rewind
And people die everyday, you should get used to it
Hands behind yo’ back, face down, and still say you shootin’
Can’t breathe
Knee where your neck be like why you movin’?
Kids in your car, headed home like what you doin’?
Like why you chillin’? Fuck yo’ feelin’s
Why you smilin’ when I’m so serious?
I hate patrolling your space, like why you livin’?
Stop asking questions, why you filmin’?
You look suspicious, I think you dealin’
Step out the car, fit the description
Someone I fear, I need to kill it” – Kenneth Whalum, Might Not be OK

 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident
All men and women are created equal
Including black Americans
You know, you know, you know,
One way of solving a lot of problems that we’ve got is
Lettin’ a person feel that they’re somebody
And a man can’t get himself together until he knows who he is,
And be proud of what and who he is and where he come from, and where he come from” – Common, Black America Again

 

“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee watching Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for best actor at the 36th Academy Awards. She opened the envelope and said five words that literally made history: “The winner is Sidney Poitier.” Up to the stage came the most elegant man I had ever seen. I remember his tie was white, and of course his skin was black, and I had never seen a black man being celebrated like that. I tried many, many times to explain what a moment like that means to a little girl, a kid watching from the cheap seats as my mom came through the door bone tired from cleaning other people’s houses. But all I can do is quote and say that the explanation in Sidney’s performance in “Lilies of the Field”: “Amen, amen, amen, amen.”” – Oprah Winfrey, 75th Golden Globes Speech

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#Write31Days – Day 9

1/9/18 – “Post-It”

Post-it note sized
reminders of why it’s good to be alive

i. the smell of the ocean
lingering on your body
salty kisses
stuck in your hair

ii. the crunch-sound leaves make
the liberating sensation as you jump in a pile
and it catches you
like your mom used to
when you were lighter

iii. fingertips sliding along your bare skin
like ice skaters
goosebumps shoot up like ice flakes
and under your skin there’s
the warmth of a fireplace

iv. the way a body curves
its hills and valleys
how skin stretches to hold us
no matter our shape

v. words and their endless material
the infinite universes out there
waiting to be created
and the gift we all possess
to make them

vi. I’m so loved;
when my phone rings because my mom is calling
when he rubs my back for no reason
when I sit across from a friend with coffee in our hands
when Jesus came and hung on a tree for me
the love swells and
no post-it note can contain it

We Dance

Inspired, in part, by Stefanie Gretzinger’s We Dance.
Sometimes I picture myself dancing with Jesus. The other day, during a church service, I nervously wondered if I was wrong to do so. Was it weird, that I pictured dancing with the Savior of the world? Then, in that same sermon I sat in, my preacher specifically said that Jesus wants us to be so close to Him it’s like we’re dancing. And he said it casually, not knowing that through him Jesus was speaking to me. He said, He wants us to be so in step with His ways that we move along with Him in a dance. And I smiled. Because Jesus loves dancing with me so much that He sent words down just to reassure me. So, I decided to write down how it feels to dance with Him. Of course, Jesus sent all these words, too.

I step up to Him, a ball in my throat. The toes of my shoes hit His and I mutter an apology, because we haven’t even started and I’m forgetting the moves. He shakes His head, that same serene smile on His face, and says, “Just follow me.” There’s a weight on my chest that my heart seems to be trying to pound away. He takes my left hand in His, pulls my right hand onto His shoulder, and holds me close. He smells like earth. Like waterfalls. Like air so fresh it hurts your lungs. It instantly stills my heart, calms my breathing, sets my mind in a place that feels like swaying on a hammock under a sea of stars. Suddenly, we’re moving, and I don’t know how but my feet know exactly where to go and my body doesn’t hesitate as it glides along with Him across the room. My thoughts fall away as the wind slides around our spinning forms, and this is life, this is life, this is being alive.

He’s teaching me the motions as we go, never faltering when I am a moment too slow, picking up the pieces of my mistakes without a second thought. I don’t feel ashamed when my mind stumbles and my feet follow suit. In that instant, He lifts me up, places my feet on His and we continue to swing. My slipups do not faze Him; He’s too perfect for them to affect His dance. As the song tiptoes upwards, the beat rising, the power resonating, a laugh tumbles out of me, so sudden it surprises me. He looks at me, grinning, as though my laughter we more melodious than the music to which we sway. And laughs. And that laugh is like a baby’s, like the sound of hope and wonder and enchantment and any good, new, fresh floating feeling I’ve ever had in my life. In His laugh I see my happiest memories sweep through my mind, and my body shakes with more laughter, with pure delight. I’ve forgotten that we’re even dancing. And this is joy, this is joy, this is being alive.

The longer we dance, the easier it is to predict His movements, to know where we’re headed and when. It becomes mindless, this dance, this togetherness, and I wonder how it is possible that I should become one with the One. I think, I am not a dancer. I have not put in the practice, the dedication, to deserve this intricate knowing of motions and melodies. I have not earned the right to be His partner. And, as though reading my thoughts, He pulls back to look at me and mutters, “No, no.” In a flash, I am blinded. The room falls away, the music fades, I lose track of my feet.

I see myself, four years old, playing in the grass of my old backyard. I am lizard-hunting, and as I watch my fat, happy fingers fishing for reptiles, a wave of powerful love slams into my gut. A love I’ve never known, a love incomparable, indescribable, and that love is for four-year-old me, who knows nothing and deserves nothing. I’m so ignorant of it, this love that could tear down cities with its ferocity. But something echoes within me and I know, it’s always been there; this adventuresome girl is followed around by a love bigger than the universe itself.

The memory is traded out and I’m a puddle of pain on the floor; I’ve been hurt, used, violated, at only twelve years old. I can still feel the love billowing inside of me, but atop it is a vicious anger, a roaring lion eager to defend and avenge. Twelve-year-old me is loved with a protective fire, ready to burn all who harm her. I am in awe. Nothing can match this love; a mama bear seems docile in the face of it. It is a five-car pile-up of screeching anger, it is tornadoes ripping up fields, it is an earth-shaker that would destroy everything for little twelve-year-old me to never have been hurt.

A new scene emerges: I’m older now, a wizened veteran, familiar with wounds of all kinds. But still the pain roils beneath the surface, and in this moment its burst forth; I sit alone in my car, as though the windows are a wall shielding me from the outside world. And the sobbing seems like it will never end. But surrounding that young woman, that little girl, I see ethereal arms. They hold me tenderly, but with a steadiness that promises to never let go. And I am struck by a whirlwind, a torrent of complete adoration, of heartbroken torment. And I know: the love is sobbing with me, sharing in the sorrow. I am so universally, eternally not alone. Where I ache, it aches. Where I tremble, it trembles. It refuses to let me bear the wounds alone. That love nearly brings me to my knees. It is a rising flood, covering everything. It is a powerful hurricane, unstoppable, ripping through all my fortresses, all the lies, the shadows where I hide, and the fears that keep me crawling away. It is a love that will not fail. It refuses to give up until its staring me in the face, wiping my tears away, calling me home into its embrace.

My sight slowly returns, and we haven’t missed a beat. My face is swimming with tears. Weighed down with that hurricane love, I hesitate to meet His eyes. I know what I will see there. In them is certainty, is eternity, is a roaring lion that will never stop His pursuit of me. I am seen. And I am known. And this is love, this is love, this is being alive.

We dance.

In Honor of the Struggling

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about conquering depression, about Christ’s power to overcome such things. I bragged on my God and how He saved me from that crippling pain, how I hadn’t been on medication for three years, how despite life’s troubles depression hadn’t ‘won’ since I’d become a daughter of God.

But what about when it does?

I have been swallowed by the darkness these past two years. I’ve become more acquainted with madness than I’d ever been before I wrote that post. I’ve ached for death, cried out for God to just end it because in my fractured mind I truly could not see a reason not to. Jesus, forgive me for those times, those moments sitting alone in my car sobbing for death, for the days I drove, bleary-eyed, ready and willing to crash into the nearest tree if that meant release from the torment in my darkened mind. I was so lost. There are still days where my blood stops running, my mind fogs over and my heart goes cold, and no amount of sunlight can draw me from my damp cave. There are still days when the madness wins.

So what about those days? Am I not a daughter of God then? Is Jesus not winning then? Have I not believed enough? Am I too weak? Am I cursed? Will I always bow down to the darkness instead of my God?

I am sorry for my misleading thoughts two years ago. There is so much I don’t know. There is so much I don’t understand. Sometimes I talk like I do, and then two years pass, and I feel like a fool.

Me and God, we run circles around these questions. I beg Him to explain to me where my depression stops being physical and becomes spiritual. I beg Him to tell me if I’ve earned this sentence, have I done something to deserve it? I beg Him to show me how to beat it. Am I disappointing you every time I swallow back the pills? Does He look on me with saddened eyes, shaking His head, and say, “If only you believed a little more, child,”?

But the more I ask the more He answers with insight only a Savior burrowed deep inside my soul could know: All I’m really asking is for Him to draw a line in the sand, showing me where my fault begins and ends. Show me where my burden of guilt is, Lord, how much of this is a pile of shame I should haul onto my back?

And He won’t answer that question. He only holds me. He only lets me cry for hours, soak through His tunic, shake His body with my sobs. And He says nothing. The darkness comes and He waits beside me until it passes, does not cast a glance at me as if to say, “Why’d you let it come again?” I shudder at the monsters trying to make friends again and He takes my hand, gets between me and the gory-faced beasts. He comforts me until the fear leaves. Quiets me every time I say, “I’m sorry.”

I don’t know a lot of things. But I’m sure about a few. So here are some truths for anyone else who may need them as much as I do, in honor of World Mental Health Day. In honor of us.

  1. Jesus will not ever leave your side. Start picturing Him beside you when you’re walking and each step feels like a burden. He’s there. Start imagining Him in the passenger seat, driving with you as you sob to that song again. He’s there. Start remembering Him when you’re frozen on the couch, too lost in your thoughts to move a muscle. He’s sitting next to you. No matter how dark your thoughts get, how angry you are, or how many times you’ve pushed Him away. He promised never to leave you or forsake you. He won’t.
  2. It’s okay if you’re on medication for the rest of your life. Don’t let ANYONE tell you you’re less than, or weak, or not trying hard enough because you take medication. I’m still working through my anger on this subject, so personally my suggestion is to just punch them in the face. Alternatively, you can remind yourself that Jesus accepts murderers, rapists, cheaters, heathens, and hypocrites without batting an eye. He definitely accepts you, medications and all.
  3. This is not a punishment. In all honesty, I don’t know what it is. I don’t know why some of us have depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder or eating disorders or any other mental health issue and others don’t. I do know it’s a result of sin in the world, just like any other illness. It’s not what God intended. But I really, truly do not believe it’s ever a punishment. The few occasions that Jesus was faced with a “why was this person born blind?” question, He never attributed it to any fault of their own. Jesus said that He came to give life and life to the full. He didn’t come to hand out depression sentences. Amen.
  4. You’re not alone. In addition to the fact that Jesus is always with you, you’re also surrounded by people who understand. Anxiety disorders alone affect 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older. 40 million people. And I can tell you, as someone who participated in mental illness support groups, that regardless of what the illness is, the experiences are all very similar. Someone beside you on the bus knows how you feel. The person checking you out at the register has sobbed themselves to sleep. Your classmate could be your ally, if you let them. Also, if you’re reading this, it means that you now know me and have me to reach out to, too. When you feel horrible because you must be the only person thinking these “insane” thoughts, please know that this is not true. You’re not horrible. You’re human, like the rest of us.
  5. Which brings me to my last point: This is not your fault. We always want to blame someone, don’t we? And when the issue seems to be “all in our head” the only one to blame is ourselves. But no. Banish that belief right now. You didn’t ask for this. Stop looking for a line in the sand, because the answer is none of this is on you. You’re struggling. It’s not always easy to shower. It’s not always easy to keep up. It’s not always easy to want to keep breathing. And the statistics of mental illness prove that this is not uncommon. You didn’t cause this. Just like a cancer patient doesn’t will their tumors to grow, you didn’t forcibly develop your own mental illness. Put down the hatchet. Stop whipping yourself. You can’t blame yourself and try to heal at the same time. You’re just a broken human being living in a broken world. We all are. It’s okay. Admit when it’s too much. We’re all in this club together, and we need to stop treating it like Fight Club and start TALKING about it. Life is hard. Sometimes it’s harder than it should be, harder for some people than it is for others. But it’s no one’s fault. And you don’t have to take the burden of guilt, because it’s already been borne on the cross by Jesus two thousand years ago. Stop trying to pick it back up, and just breathe. That’s all that’s really expected of you. Just keep breathing. Everything else doesn’t matter.

I rambled. But someone needed to read this, and even if they didn’t, I needed to write it. My name is Carla Ramsey, and I have (several) mental illnesses that I battle all the time. It’s not my fault. I’m not alone. I take medication and that’s freakin’ fine. I’m still a child of God, and no one and no thing (not even the big bad depression monsters) can take that away from me. Jesus, my Jesus, will never leave me in the darkness, will never blame me for struggling with it. I’m safe to hurt, safe to cry, safe to struggle.

If you feel alone tonight, hold on to this scripture, which I recently rediscovered. Your pain is precious to God:

You keep track of all my sorrows.
You have collected all my tears in your bottle.
You have recorded each one in your book. Psalm 56:8

So, here it is. My amendment to the post from two years ago. It’s not perfect, just like its predecessor. I’m not perfect. And that’s okay, because my Jesus loves me even if all I ever manage to do is breathe.

 

Author’s note: I don’t disagree with any of the things I said in my old post, exactly. I just wanted to pour a little grace on top. 

If anyone is struggling, please do not hesitate to talk to someone. And if there’s no one in your life that you feel safe talking to, the people at these numbers are trained and happy to be a listening ear or a resource for help. God bless.
Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Crisis Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

 

Hi, My Name is Carla and I’m A Flesh-aholic

I’m no stranger to the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Not because of any struggle of my own, but because of the struggles of some of those whom I love. I went to meetings somewhat frequently as a teenager, to the point where I became comfortable enough to speak up and join the conversation. I used to say, “Hi, I’m Carla, and I’m not an alcoholic.” This always earned a soft tide of laughter.

addictionFor those of us who have never struggled with an addiction to something like drugs, alcohol or sex, it’s really easy to feel—consciously or subconsciously—like we’re a lot better than those who do. For those college students reading this, you look around at your fellow high school graduates and think, “Man, I may not be passing all my classes but at least I’m not passed out drunk every night like Suzy Q.” Any of the moms and dads reading this, you might find that you give yourself a little pat on the back when you find out that Richard has a drinking problem, or Zoe got addicted to the pain meds after her surgery, because at least you and your family don’t struggle with those things. I mean, let’s be honest, we think about alcoholism, drug and sex addiction as the BIG no-no’s, the taboo-iest, the dark alley that WE’D never go down. I’ve had those same thoughts myself, plenty of times. When I first became a Christian and the Holy Spirit would tap me gently on the shoulder to remind me of the guilt I felt over my own sins, I would always tell Him, “No, Spirit, it’s fine. I’m not out drinking every night, I don’t have sex with random guys…we’re good.” I wrote off my own struggles by looking back on those AA meetings and thinking, “At least I’m not that bad.”

Which brings me to my real point in this post. I may not be an alcoholic, but that response—that looking at another person as if I know their very soul and thinking, “Well, at least I’m better than they are,”—proves that I am an addict. I’m a flesh-aholic. Because only someone addicted to pacifying their fleshly desire to feel good about themselves, to feel better than others, would think such things. But we’re all flesh-aholics, aren’t we? fleshweakThe Bible says that our flesh and the Holy Spirit are at odds with one another, because they desire opposite things. Because of this, “you do not do what you want,” (Galatians 5:17). It also says that we are SLAVES to sin, which is the gratification of the flesh. Slavery sounds a lot like addiction, yeah? If you’re still not convinced you’re a flesh-aholic, consider the following verse from Galatians 5:19-21: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar.” Now, most everyone I know has struggled with envy, anger, hatred, selfish ambition, and idolatry (Yeah, dudes, football counts—anything you place above God counts. I’m pretty sure I idolize my cat, actually…I should pray on that), so even if you somehow have managed to stay away from the sexual immorality aspect of the list, you’re still a flesh-aholic.  (The first step, in case you didn’t know, is admitting you’re a flesh-aholic. Some of us may simply need to start there.)

But I’m not saying these things to bring any of us down. Actually, my point flows back to those Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I used to go to. If you don’t know what the program is like, the gist of it is addicts coming together for hour long meetings where they share their struggles, share their lives, and encourage each other to keep fighting the good fight of sobriety. Meetings can be found around town morning, noon, and night, so depending on the difficulty of your day you could go to three or go to one. Most addicts truly dedicated to recovery go at least three times a week, but I’m pretty sure that once a day is the goal for most. The purpose of the meetings is to reset your mind, remind yourself of your goal of continued sobriety, but most importantly to remember that you are not on the journey alone.

But meetings are not where the program ends. Listening to the same people talk about their personal lives and struggles nearly every day creates some pretty significant bonds, and from that most addicts find a community, a family. They find lasting relationships that go beyond the walls of the meeting house and flood into lunches, coffee dates, desperate phone calls for encouragement…someone to sit beside when the shadows roll over and running back to the addiction feels like the best option. You get a sponsor, which is a glorified (and much more dedicated) accountability partner, who is wise in their experience battling the addiction and graciously devotes their time to helping you through the 12 Steps. The 12 Steps are all about facing the obstacles that can stand in the way of sobriety in a practical, introspective way—and, incidentally, they require the help of a Higher Power to get you through each of them. The goal is really to learn how to live your life better, with honesty and truth and freedom. Freedom from the addiction and all the tiny ways it tricked you into slavery.

meetingtogetherSo I was doing the dishes this morning, thinking about all of the different Christian study groups I have the opportunity to be a part of. I’ve just joined one on Mondays, my husband and I are hoping to begin attending one on Tuesday nights, and I have the opportunity to go to another on Thursdays. I was considering how much time this would take up, the many hours I would lose snuggling my husband while dutifully bingeing Parks and Rec, when I considered something. My mom and stepdad go together to AA meetings several nights a week, and it’s not something they consider optional. I’m sure many times they would rather be vegging in front of the TV, but they’ve learned through painful mistakes that the sacrifice is quite worth it. And this made me stop for a moment and think: how much stronger would my faith and my fellowship with other Christians be if we treated our Christianity like an Alcoholics Anonymous community? And how much better at fighting my flesh addiction would I be?

The first century Christians, I think, knew that we are all flesh-aholics. In Acts 2 we’re told that “all believers were together and held all things in common (v. 44).” In fact, “Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, praising God and having favor with all the people (v. 46).” They met together daily? And had all things in common? They went to each other’s homes and ate together? That sounds a lot like a community of addicts who know that they need constant encouragement, honesty, and togetherness to be able to fight against their addiction.

I’m picturing the church. It’s not a building where people come once a week to hear one person give a speech, ignore one another, and then leave and pretend it never happened (that’s called a college lecture, people). It’s individuals who know each other intimately, who are humbled by their mistakes and share everything with one another, including their struggles. It’s people who know that if they don’t sacrifice things like personal free time or personal privacy, that their addictions will win and they will lose it all—people who have the proper perspective of what is most important, because they remember their life before this change, they remember who they were and they never want to be that person again. It’s people who, when their friend starts to forget who they once were and begins giving into it again, are unafraid to step in and remind them; unselfish enough to sit beside them and fight the battle together. People that will give a huge piece of their life to a stranger who needs their help, who will choose to mentor that person through healing, understanding, and growth that only comes from God. It’s individuals who meet together often, even daily, to share life together and build each other up because they know what it looks like when they try to do it alone. And in this Godly community, the fight for sobriety somehow gets easier.

It’s a punch to the gut when you realize that the people you used to look at and say, “At least I’m not that bad,” have a more Christ-like community than your own Christian church does.

So here, allow me to start the meeting: “Hi, I’m Carla, and I’m a flesh-aholic.”

How God Feels About You: A Reminder, Courtesy of Pixar

So last night I was watching Pixar’s Inside Out again (because sometimes you just want to make yourself cry, you know?) and I came to the scene where Joy and Bing Bong have just fallen into the Memory Dump. Everything has gone downhill. Joy and Sadness are both lost from “headquarters,” and without them, all Riley (our protagonist whose head we are inside of) can feel is Fear, Anger, and Disgust. She’s also missing her “core memories” which are what make Riley who she is. Without them, she is losing her love for family, friends, hockey, silliness, and honesty. She is losing herself. Because of this, Riley has just decided to run away from home. Joy knows this, but has no way to get back to headquarters to help save the girl they all love so dearly. Riley’s emotions are shutting down altogether, and she is becoming lost in a state of hopelessness and depression. In this moment, Joy is overwhelmed with the love she has for Riley and her desperate desire to help her.

Here is the scene, if you’ve never seen it:


As Joy picks up different memories of Riley, she recalls the special things about her that she loves so deeply. Looking at a little Riley coloring, she says, “Do you remember how she used to stick her tongue out when she was coloring?” And holding a memory of Riley telling silly stories, she earnestly adds, “I could listen to her stories all day.” Finally, looking at a memory of young Riley laughing joyfully and feeling overcome with sadness herself, Joy cries, “I just wanted Riley to be happy.”  

It struck me as I watched this scene that there are people in my life who feel this way about me. Chiefly my parents, but I know there are others too. Probably more than I realize. People who look at me and recall memories and feel love for me simply because of who I am, people who want joy for me. And then I was openly sobbing on my bed because I realized, God feels this way about me, too.

More than she represents anyone else in my life, Joy represents God in this scene. I picture Him, the Lord of all Creation, weeping over my heartbreak. I picture Him holding memories of a young Princess Jade and smiling sadly, because He just wants life for me. He just wants joy for me. God is holding little globes of my memories and whispering, “Do you remember how she always tried to catch lizards? She was so unafraid of the world.” He picks up another, “I could read her poetry all day—even the ones from middle school. She put so much life into them.” Another, “Her laugh is so full, so loud. I miss that sound.” He picks up a glowing blue memory and holds it to His chest. It’s me, a puddle on the floor, wracked with sorrow, crying out for someone to help me. And God loves me as deeply in that sad memory as He did in the joyful ones. He loves me for every single one. For every part of me, even the ugly memories that I’d rather forget. And He cries, “I hate it when she hurts,” He says, “I died so she’d have freedom and life. I just want her to have life.”

That’s real. That’s not make believe. That’s not a Disney movie. That is real life, happening right now. God feels that way about you right now.

God despairs for us. He feels pain over our pain. He aches for us to have joy and is jealous when we seek it elsewhere. God is looking at memories you can’t even remember anymore and loving you for them. He knows every single inch of your brain, has the blueprints memorized, can recall every single detail there is to know about you down to the number of atoms in your body and the amount of blood in your veins, and HE. LOVES. YOU. He knows you, and He loves you. And He desperately, desperately wants you to let Him save you.

Watch the video again. And this time, picture God instead of Joy, and you instead of Riley.

And believe it. It’s real.

Sitting in Sorrow

Author’s Note: Dedicated to my dear friend, James. Jesus is right beside you in this, my brother. I love you.

I love the band Flyleaf. They are unafraid to sing about raw pain in the light of their Christianity. They don’t pretend that sorrow doesn’t exist as a Christian, but instead describe Christ speaking into our grief.

I was listening to one such song, aptly titled ‘Sorrow’, when the following lyrics struck me deeply:

Sitting closer than my pain
He knew each tear before it came

Right now I am going through a period of time where I frequently find myself sobbing in my car at random intervals. I am unashamed to say it: I am suffering from massive mood swings. And because of this many of my days are knit with deep, intense sorrow; the battle against depression is being waged yet again. So when I heard these lyrics they echoed in my head, the question reverberating through me for days afterward, “How?” How could Jesus be closer than pain that felt etched into my very being?

So that Sunday, I decided to ask Him. Desperate and aching with helplessness for my life, the lives of my loved ones, the world at large—heavy with the darkness surrounding me—I reached out. The following is the prayer that I wrote to Christ in that moment, unedited in its rawness:

Jesus,

Do you really sit closer than my pain? You know what it looks like. You can describe it so much better than I can. It’s so large and monstrous. It looms over me, breathing down my neck and soaking me in fear and panic and uncertainty and anger and hatred and self-loathing and depression and lethargy and hopelessness and I can’t see passed the fog it surrounds me in. It’s black smoke, so thick it’s almost solid. Almost like a pitch black box that I have no way of getting out of. If it’s all around me, how can you be closer than it? I don’t understand… Are you in the pain, in the smoking darkness? Are you in me?

Where are you, Jesus? Make it clear to me.

I don’t want to question your presence. Reveal yourself to me. Where are you in the darkness? Please. I need to know I’m not alone here in this haunted place. Are you behind me, watching my back while I grope around helplessly? Are you a light that I just can’t see? Reveal yourself to me, Lord.

Are you closer than my pain? Get between it and me. I want to feel it and know it’s there. I don’t want to numb it; I just don’t want it to take me down like it has been. I’m pinned to the floor, heavy black smoke upon me, choking me. Get between us, Christ.

Help me. Help me. Help me.

I put my notebook down. I listened to the sermon, took fervent notes, the black smoke still on my back. Though I sat in a chair surrounded by Christians, what I pictured was a haunted house. Colorless. Whispering voices, staring eyes, hungry growls coming from every direction. No windows, no doors. Just a huge, putrid, decrepit house that I was hopelessly lost in. And no matter how quickly I ran, the heavy, daunting black smoke followed me, always at my heels. And in that moment it had caught me and I was pinned to the floor, tasting ragged carpet and being taunted at every angle by the voices, the eyes, the growls. The black smoke covered me until it seemed that maybe it was me—me and my pain, merging so that I would never be rid of it again. How could Christ be closer than a pain that felt like it was all around me and inside me?

After the sermon we took prayer requests from our small number of members. As we bowed our heads in prayer I folded my hands together, because I sat alone. But in that moment I felt a hand over my own, holding it as we began to pray. In my mind I lifted my head and saw Christ sitting to my right, smiling with tender eyes. I heard Him whisper, “I’m here. Silent tears slid down my cheeks as my brothers and sisters prayed on around me, unaware of my communion with Christ. In my head I stared at Him, eyes wide, and answered quietly, “You’re here?” I felt then the closest hug I had ever felt, the arms of my Savior surrounding me and pulling me into Him. I melted, sobbing, “You’re here.”

And suddenly I was in the haunted house again. It looked the same. The whispers and eyes and growls were all present, and the black smoke still sat over me, my body pressed to the floor with no power to move. But when I turned my head I saw, lying on the floor beside me, my God. My Savior. My Christ. He laid pressed low just as I was, under the weight of the black smoke just as I was, holding my hand in His own. At the sight of Him I sobbed, tears pouring over me, shaking with emotion. He whispered in the face of my pain, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m right here.

Jesus squeezed my hand, the two of us together in my pain. I’m always here.

In my chair at church, frantically writing the experience in my notebook, I penned, “He’s already here. He’s in the pain with me. I’m not alone, I’m not alone, I’m not alone.”

The black smoke of my pain pressed down on me, fearing the power of my God. I cried, “Please don’t leave me!”

Christ answered, holding my hand tighter, silencing my fear, I never will.

All praise be to the God of Light. All praise be to Jesus Christ, who took the burden of our sin so that we would never be alone in our sorrow again.

He sits closer than our pain. He shares it.