*allegory, a symbolic fictional narrative that conveys a meaning not explicitly set forth in the narrative
Her wound was open. She sat, sobbing.
It wasn’t the first time. Although it had scabbed over time and again since the injury was first sustained, it could be torn open with the slightest impact, even now, decades later.
She’d been a child when the initial blow had been dealt and her still-young flesh had first been split open. The pain had been stunning — it had shoved her back, and she had sat, a child, weeping on the floor, holding her chest, trying to stop the hemorrhaging.
After she had tired from much sobbing and flailing about, it had subsided — the pain, the bleeding — receding to a dull but ever present ache.
Since then, she had carried it around with her, this bruised and tender flesh,
It was the kind of injury that never fully heals, the experts had said. Even when sustained during the growing years, the body — the heart — could not regenerate enough cells to fully heal the damage that had been done.
The injury would remain, opening up from time to time. Then, new cells would form to stop the bleeding, to cover over the gaping wound. She’d use caution, covering the tender area with a protective layer, shielding it from subsequent blows, learning to avoid danger, developing a keen defensive awareness.
She’d be so careful, so vigilant, that she could even believe the spirit-altering injury might actually be healing. The pain would subside, and she would become hopeful that she would never again shed tears, never again ache, never again sob with the pain or even the memory of the pain.
But then, from out of nowhere — but often from somewhere familiar — a pointed blade would find its way through her armor, past layers of clothing, beneath the dressings, to pierce the flesh. Just like that, the wound would be torn open and she would crumble again, down, down, down, weeping, sobbing, holding her heart, and begging for the pain to stop,
In the early years, not long after the wound had first been dealt, she would, in pain, lash out — swinging and flailing at those closest, begging them to join her in the misery. Over the years, however, she learned this strategy was ineffective — it did not diminish her own hurt, but rather multiplied it. Instead of joining her in her pain, the others turned away, kept their distance, isolating her, piling guilt and regret on top of pain, and leaving those she loved with their own wounds to tend.
Later, as she aged, when certainly, she thought, this decades-old injury had to be fully healed, she could still be brought low by a stray arrow, an unintended blow that nevertheless grazed the tender flesh, re-opening the wound.
It was open now. The middle-aged heart had been hit, and it was laid bare.
Reminding her of the many years of pain, many years of tears, many years of swallowing feelings past a tightened aching throat.
She lay supine, futilely wiping away an unstoppable deluge of tears, fighting against the years of pain — still not wanting to feel it — still not wanting to admit I’m hit! I’m hurt! I’m bleeding! I’m suffering!
Those standing over her, observing her as she lie bleeding, sobbing, say her wound, her perpetually open wound, informs her compassion, gives her language to comfort others with the comfort she herself has received, but that is little consolation when the tenuous flesh has been recently sliced, when the blood is dripping on the floor, when she is doubled over, trying desperately to silence her own cries.
Nevertheless she hears.
She admits they are right.
Her pain does give her compassion for others.
She sighs in resignation, then does what she has always done.
She sits up, dabbing at the now-congealing blood,
taking a sip of cool water,
applying fresh dressings,
washing her face,
combing her hair.
Then, as she examines herself in the mirror, she hears a still small voice, “Do not be afraid; do not discouraged, for I am with you wherever you go.”
“I know,” she says, nodding, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye, “I know.”
And she, carrying the open wound with her, steps back into the land of the living.
In the past weeks and months we’ve seen an escalation, it seems, of the gun violence that has been a plague on America since well before the attack at a high school in Columbine, Colorado on April 20, 1999, twenty-two years ago this week. In 2020, during a global pandemic, when many of us were under stay-at-home orders for large chunks of time, the New York Timesreports that there were more than 600 shootings in which four or more people were injured or killed. In 2021, the United States has logged 147 such mass shootings and eleven mass murders (in which four or more people were killed) as of April 16th. Just a few days ago, a young man shot and killed eight at a FedEx warehouse in Indianapolis before turning the gun on himself. In March, a man killed ten people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado. A few days earlier, a young man killed eight adults at three spas in Atlanta.
At the same time, incidents of police shooting and killing suspects seem to be increasing. Last Sunday, April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20 year old man, was shot during a traffic stop. On March 29, Adam Toledo, a male teenager, was shot after a brief middle of the night police chase. In total 213 civilians were fatally shot by police in the first three months of 2021 in the United States.
What is happening? As I watch the news from my couch, I find myself yelling: “get rid of semi-automatic weapons!” and “we need free mental health care for all,” as if more mental health care and a few gun laws would make the changes we need in America.
I really wish it were that simple, but what I’m starting to wonder is what if the shootings –these killings — aren’t the problem, but merely symptoms — and as soon as I’ve written the words, I know I’m right.
The problem is much more pervasive than the gun violence we’ve seen over the last weeks, months, and years, and rather than being isolated to some we might call ‘killers’ or ‘terrorists’, ‘thugs’ or ‘criminals’, the problem lives inside all of us. The deadly disease of ‘othering’, or dehumanization, that causes and perpetuates isolation, desperation, and violence has infected all of us, and we spread it through our actions — and our inactions — every day.
Brené Brown in her now-famous Braving the Wilderness describes this disease saying:
Dehumanizing often starts with creating an enemy image. As we take sides, lose trust, and get angrier and angrier, we not only solidify an idea of our enemy, but also start to lose our ability to listen, communicate, and practice even a modicum of empathy.
Have you seen this? Have you found yourself getting angrier and angrier, losing trust, and being unable to listen to those with whom you don’t agree? Have you found yourself listening for buzzwords that can help you categorize people into the enemy? I have!
Haven’t we even named those who are our enemies? Liberals, conservatives, libtards, Trumpsters, thugs, Karens, maskers, no-maskers, … I don’t have enough space on this page to list all the ways that we label those that we put on the other side or that we ourselves identify with.
Brené Brown explains that we dehumanize others in order to justify our mistreatment of them. If we reduce fellow humans to labels or categories through our language, we create distance between them and ourselves, and we find it easier to sling verbal grenades. Doing harm to these others seems right and appropriate if they are indeed the enemy. I want to shut down those I view as different from me so that my agenda can be furthered. I’m right, after all, and they are clearly so, so wrong.
If I call someone a “liberal”, I take away their personality, their humanity. I decide that they are less than human because they believe ‘socialist ideas’ and will certainly bring our country to ruin if they are left unchecked.
The same thing happens when I label someone a “Trumpster.” In my mind, I’ve consciously or unconsciously demoted their status to subhuman. They are no longer a child of our Creator, how could they be if they are not only ‘conservative but likely racist, homophobic, and hateful toward women’?
In my mind, I justify my ill thoughts toward these “enemies”; I view myself as more righteous, more human. However, such dehumanization not only reduces others to subhuman status, it reduces me, too. It makes me less than what I’m called to be, less than kind, less than gentle, less than compassionate, less than self-controlled. I find myself behaving as one who has no love, no hope, no wisdom, no knowledge of a God who has created and loves all of us. All of us.
Brene’ Brown says, ‘When we desecrate [others’] divinity, we desecrate our own, and we betray our humanity.”
So what is the remedy? Perhaps we will find our way by re-humanizing, re-connecting. And how do we do that?
I am reading a book called The Restorative Practice Handbook by Bob Costello, Joshua Wachtel, and Ted Wachtel. My principal handed me this book last fall when I started working at Detroit Leadership Academy, whose educational framework is grounded in the idea that all of our students have experienced trauma, all of them need restoration, a space into which they might step to find a different way.
And isn’t that what we need? Don’t we need some space in which we might turn around and find our way back to humanity, to compassion, to empathy for other humans whether they are similar to us or very, very different?
The main premise of the book is that when one person has caused harm to another or to the community in general, the goal should be to restore that person to his community through a very simple series of steps. Rather than immediately jumping to consequences or even punishment, Costello et al have spent the past twenty years practicing this restorative process which asks the offender to first describe what happened, what they were thinking at the time, what they’ve been thinking of since, who they think they may have offended, and what they might do to make things right. This simple questioning creates space. It allows the person, the human, to think about what happened, to process their emotions, and to realize that their actions had consequences for others.
The next step is to allow those who were impacted to share what they were thinking when the event occurred, to describe the impact it had on them, and to suggest what might need to happen to make things right. The person(s) who was harmed has a chance to process their emotions, to put their feelings into words, and to be a partner in the process of reconciliation.
These discussions take place inside a circle of those who were involved and other interested parties such as parents or community leaders. The process takes an investment of time and intentionality, but as it has been used inside school and institutional settings, the results have been remarkable. Communication in a caring and supportive environment has allowed the individual to “move past shame…and make things right and restore his relationship with the….community” (74). Crucial to the success of this process is a commitment to “‘separate the deed from the doer’ by acknowledging the intrinsic worth of the person while rejecting the unacceptable behavior” (73). This is counterintuitive. We really want to label others according to their actions, pushing them away from us into convenient boxes and imagining their ‘enemy image’, but where has that gotten us? Further and further apart.
What does this have to do with gun violence? Well, remember I said that gun violence was a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself. The real disease is our habit of dehumanizing others, of hating them, of calling them names, and pitting ourselves against them.
Brené Brown says that “people are hard to hate close up,” and that might be why we push them away. If we pulled ourselves into circles and listened to one another, listened to each other’s stories, heard each other’s hearts, we might find that our preconceived notions were oh so wrong. We might discover that we are more alike than we might have ever imagined. We might find empathy and even love.
It won’t be easy to do this work. Just reading this book over the last several days has forced me to confront all the ways I have been judgmental, punitive, legalistic, and dehumanizing. That has not been fun, but as a good friend said just recently, “I’d rather realize I’ve been an asshole for the last fifty years and work to live differently than to keep being an asshole for the rest of my life and not even know it.”
I’ve been a real asshole to some people. I haven’t been able to separate the deed from the doer. I’ve pushed people away and made judgments about them, cutting off any possibility for relationship or empathy. I’m saddened by that, and I want to do better. And I’m wondering if a few of us trying to do better might make a difference, if a few of us showing love, compassion, and empathy might begin to change the world.
I’m willing to try, and I already know that I will fail in this trying, so I am counting on some of you to keep calling me back, to bring me into the circle, to ask me what happened, what I was thinking, and what needs to happen to make things right. Are you with me?
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, as Christ forgave you.”
Over the weekend, a friend sent me a photo to show me how she was spending her evening. In her shot, I could see the television screen and a Piston’s game in progress; I could see her polished toes propped up in front of her, but I couldn’t see her face or who she was watching with. She showed me what she wanted me to see — just a slice of the whole.
Media cameras give us a slice, too. They use selected images and create a neatly packaged narrative to create a story about what’s happening in the world, and while a picture paints a thousand words, actual stories with all their nuances, often take thousands of words to write.
Although we’ve been watching news of Covid-19 for 10 months and we’ve seen images of sickness and death every, we have not seen the true devastation caused by this disease. The screens in our living rooms can’t show us the pain of the 375,000 families who’ve lost loved ones since March. They can’t convey the stress, the weariness, the weight that our health care workers have been carrying. They can’t transport the heaviness of heart of those who are lifting bodies into refrigerated storage units because the morgues are full.
The camera gives a glimpse, but it’s can’t convey the whole.
Last Spring, along with shots of the empty streets of downtown Manhattan and the long lines of people waiting for food, the camera also held its focus for over eight minutes as a police officer kneeled on the neck of a man while officers stood by watching him die. It turned its gaze to another man out for an afternoon jog and watched as he was chased down by men in trucks, assaulted, and killed in the middle of the street. Not long after, the camera found in its frame a man taking the last steps of his life moments before a police officer shot seven bullets into his back severing his spinal cord and rendering him paralyzed.
It showed us these moments when everything changed, but it hasn’t shown us the ongoing impact in the lives of the people who loved those men.
It hasn’t shown us the grieving families — how they struggle to face another day in their forever-altered reality, knowing that those who inflicted violence on their loved ones get to keep right on living, some not facing any consequences at all. The camera hasn’t focused on that.
Throughout the pandemic, we have watched scenes of citizens responding to circumstances that seem unjust. We’ve seen outraged masses demonstrating against police brutality and others infuriated at orders to stay at home and wear a mask. The cameras have marched along, capturing images, and creating narratives.
And this week cameras were in the crowd as the leader of the free world — a man who has never experienced police brutality or had to stand in a line to get food, who has never been forced to stay at home or wear a mask — stood on the mall in Washington, DC, dressed in a fine suit and freshly coiffed, and spoke to thousands who adore him, who view him as the answer to society’s ills, who believe him to be a man of God and a fighter for the people. Cameras recored as he spoke to these people who had travelled across the country at his bidding, paying with their own hard-earned money, or charging flights and hotel rooms on credit cards they may or may not be able to pay back. They were dressed as warriors and carrying weapons; they brought strategies and tactics and stood there ready when he told them to march. The President of the United States said “you can’t be weak” but you must “save our democracy.” And, after listening to him decry our nation for over an hour, these thousands of citizens followed his orders and marched. The camera caught them screaming war cries, pushing police out of the way, breaking windows, climbing walls, destroying property, and terrifying the nation.
Not long after, the camera showed most of them walking away without consequence — not with knees on their necks, not with bullets in their backs, not chased down by vehicles and killed in the street.
And since Wednesday, as we’ve heard cries for justice, for impeachment, for accountability and watched the tapes of that attack played and replayed, we’ve been tempted to shake our fists at our screens, shouting at the ineptitude of the local and federal governments that respond unequally to the actions of black and white bodies, at the corruption of politicians, and at the devastating division in our country. And certainly, we are justified to do so, but all of our shouting and fist-shaking will not, of itself, cause transformation.
However, if we dare, we might turn away from the camera and its limited gaze to see that the issues plaguing the United States are both national and local. They are both political and personal. The same divisions we saw through a camera lens last week, and that we have been seeing for the last several years, are present in our own communities, in our own friend groups, in our own families, and in our own selves. We are a nation — a people — infected with selfishness, pride, racism, and self-righteousness.
And, as our pastor, Marcus Lane, said this morning, “We cannot confront evil in the world without confronting it in ourselves.” No, we sure can’t.
We will not change as a culture until we, as individuals, take intentional steps toward change — toward self-examination, confession, repentance, and walking in a new way. It’s going to take a collective effort to turn the dial, and to right our course.
We’re going to have to step away from our screens and the limited view of life that they display. We’re going to have to take a broader view, putting down our finger-pointing judgmental attitudes and extending not only consequences but grace to those who’ve gotten it wrong, including ourselves. We’re going to have to open up space so that as those around us try to change course, they will find the room to do so.
Look, we are all guilty here. We are all complicit — we’ve all contributed to this very tragic narrative.
We can no longer deny that much of what the camera shows us not only illustrates but perpetuates systemic racism and the privilege of the few. We saw with our own eyes that among the insurrectionists, who were mostly white, were those who carried Confederate flags and wore t-shirts emblazoned with anti-Semitic and racist messages. It is nauseating to see such hatred so blatantly on display — right on the cameras –but really, that’s where it should be, out where we can see it, because for too long it has been carried surreptitiously inside our hearts.
I’ve been idly watching this narrative for too long.
I feel compelled to take an inward look to face the evil within myself so that I will be better equipped to call it out in our world and to give the camera something new to look at. We’ve got to right this ship, friends. We’ve got to change the trajectory of our story.
Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
And just as I’ve set my resolve to Take Care and to Be Kind for the holidays, just as we’ve decked our halls humming fa-la-la-la-la, I find myself with a weight on my chest and a lump in my throat.
It’s December 1, the first Sunday in Advent, and I am sitting here talking myself away from the ledge of despair. Why? One innocent Instagram post suggested that my hopes might be disappointed — that all my resolve-setting, and hall-decking might not end up in joyful reunions, restored celebrations, or a meeting of healed hearts.
After all of our healing work and intentionality, we might still find ourselves broken.
I can’t bear to face that reality. I can’t imagine the possibility of another holiday sprinkled with tears and punctuated by slammed doors followed by hours of silence. But I am beginning to imagine it, just as I was beginning to have hope.
I was beginning to picture smiling embraces, laughter at the table, and intimate conversations filled with sustained eye contact. In my mind, I saw four generations sharing stories, sitting closely, leaning in. I imagined games and coloring and gifts and food. I saw tenderness, forgiveness, cuddling, and love.
These images were born out of longing — a longing for restoration, for healing, for reconciliation, for an end to a long, long season of grief.
All year, we’ve been removing layers of mourners’ clothing — a black veil here, a grey dress there — and we’ve been eyeing the party gowns in the closet. Do we dare to hope that we might be celebrating? That we might kill the fatted calf, invite all the neighbors, and make a feast to announce the return of joy?
We’ve prepared rooms — fluffed all the pillows, set out new towels, and lined the manger with straw — but what if no one comes? Or what if they come, and they leave disappointed?
What if the gifts are not right, the food too much (or too little), the conversations strained, and the accommodations inadequate? What if there is no joy?
I can’t, I won’t entertain those doubts.
I won’t feed my longing with manufactured images of despair. I won’t, sitting here hungry, imagine a table filled with rancid food. I will hold onto hope.
We’ll prepare the space, hold onto hope, and wait.
Sarah Bessey wrote on herblog this weekend: Advent simply means “coming” – so for me, it is about the waiting. When people talk about “living in the tension” I think of Advent. It’s the time when we prepare to celebrate his birth and we also acknowledge that we are waiting here still for every tear to be wiped away.
And as I’m waiting for them to be wiped away, they just keep coming.
We’ve come so far! We have seen evidence that all things are being made new — the blind receive their sight, the sick are made well, we’ve had good news preached to us, and then one Instagram post can send me reeling.
I spiral quickly from choosing hope to drowning in despair.
Like Sarah Bessey, I need my Saviour who suffers with us, my God who weeps, who longs to gather us to himself as a mother hen gathers her chicks.
I need to be gathered, just as I long to gather my own, to hold them close, to provide warmth and comfort, and to feel their warmth and their comfort.
I am longing for that warmth. That comfort.
Advent is for the ones who know longing, says Sarah Bessey.
And, if she’s writing about longing, she probably is familiar with it — that ache, that desire, that wake-you-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night hunger for wholeness, for healing, for restoration.
I’ve been so caught up — for actual years now — in longing for the restoration of my family and for healing for those I love, for peace in our world, for an end to violence, poverty, hunger, and pain. I’ve been feeling my brokenness.
We’re all broken — every last one of us.
We all are longing to be made whole, aren’t we? We’re longing for all things to be made new. We are watching in the distance for the arrival of a Savior who, we trust, is coming to gather us into His arms.
And He. Is. Coming.
In fact, He is here. He is already making everything new. We see evidence all around us — when long-lost friends reunite, when we share small kindnesses with strangers, when we realize we are forgiven.
We rejoice when we see these glimmers of hope, and we will celebrate even more when we finally see every broken piece put back into place.
We will see every broken piece put back into place.
And in the mean time, we’ll deck our halls, fluff our pillows, and make some room.
And I will continue to hope, even if reality doesn’t meet my expectation — if my gifts are all wrong, the food doesn’t turn out, and if everyone leaves disappointed. Because although I am longing for restoration, I know that it comes in ways that I don’t always expect and that I don’t always recognize.
Small glimmers accumulate over time…and then all at once, He wipes every tear from our eyes.
I will not lose hope, because Hope. Has. Come.
And He is coming again.
He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
A couple of weeks ago, the Michigan State Spartans, in the last moments of a tight game against the Arizona State Sun Devils, attempted a field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime. Although Matt Coghlin put the ball cleanly through the goal posts, the field goal was disqualified because the Spartans had twelve men (rather than eleven) on the field at the time of the kick. They were given a five yard penalty before another shot at the kick, but Coghlin’s second attempt went wide right. The Sun Devils won the game 10-7.
It wasn’t until the next day, after countless replays of the game tape, that officials admitted that a Sun Devil defender had illegally leapt over the Spartan offensive line during the second field goal attempt which should have resulted in a fifteen yard penalty and a third attempt at the field goal. The referees had missed the call.
If the Spartans would’ve only had eleven men on the field, if Coghlin would’ve made the second field goal attempt, or if the officials would’ve seen the violation, MSU would’ve tied the game and sent it into overtime.
They should’ve had that chance because they should’ve only had 11 on the field, Coghlin should’ve made that kick, and the officials should’ve seen the violation.
I wonder if any players, coaches, or refs have replayed those tapes and thought to themselves that it could’ve gone much differently. The Spartans could’ve had a win. The Sun Devils could’ve lost.
But all the would’ve, should’ve, and could’ve won’t turn back the clock and change the result. It is what it is. What happened happened.
We watch ‘game tapes’, too, don’t we? We rewind to times of difficulty, loss, or failure and review in slow motion the exact moment where things might’ve gone differently. We try deleting scenes and inserting new clips, but it doesn’t work. The film is indelible. It is what it is. What happened happened.
My husband and I recently took a trip to St. Louis, mostly so that he could officiate at a wedding, but also so that we could bear witness to some old films. We lived in St. Louis for ten years, and surely we had moments of both victory and defeat, but it probably won’t surprise you to learn that our eyes were drawn to the twelve-men-on-the-field/missed-field-goal moments and not as as much to times of celebraton.
A drive through our old neighborhood pressed play on events surrounding our unspoken broken — memories of what we witnessed, what we missed, and what we can’t change. A stop at a traffic light on a busy road called forth images of a broken down car, a frantic teen, and a failure to understand the layers of pain underneath the surface. A walk through our old grocery store took me right back to the soldiering days of fitting in shopping between school and workouts and dance lessons and soccer games.
What a harried life we led. We were doing so much and moving so fast, that we didn’t take the time to assess the damages along the way. We didn’t watch the game tapes in the moment, so we kept making the same mistakes over and over again.
And now that I’ve finally taken the time to view the tapes, I can’t seem to look away. I rewind again and again, slowly analyzing missteps, oversights, and outright failures. I get trapped in regret and what ifs and I feel myself spiraling downward into a bottomless sea of grief.
If only I would’ve when I should’ve than I could’ve.
But I can’t. It is what it is. What happened happened.
On our recent trip to St. Louis, we grieved, but we also went to lunch with good friends, had coffee with former neighbors, and spent the day with former ministry partners who might as well be family. Our loved ones sat with us in our reality as we showed them clips of our game tapes — the grief and the celebrations. We laughed, we cried, and we dreamed.
We can’t go back and rewrite what happened, so how do we move forward?
I’m quite confident that Mark D’antonio called his team in for a film session on the Monday after the Arizona State game and, with them, analyzed each play — each one that worked, each one that didn’t. I’m confident they had a moment revisiting the twelve men on the field situation and the failure of the refs to make the call that would’ve given them one more try. I’m sure they clarified lessons learned and strategies to try again. And then, I’m confident, they put the film away.
And we’re trying to do that, too. We don’t want to delete our films; they hold too much. However, we can choose, after having looked their reality straight on, after having acknowledged our roles, counted our losses, and seen our strengths, to archive them. We can put them away in the vault for safekeeping. We don’t want to forget what happened, or deny it, because all of life changes us, informs us, softens us, propels us.
The Spartans couldn’t stay steeped in regret or what ifs; they had to move on. The next game was days away, and if they allowed themselves to swirl downward into the pit of despair, they would be missing an opportunity to prepare for their next challenge, their next game, their next opportunity.
And that’s what I’m trying to do now. I’m trying to prepare for the next challenge, the next game, the next opportunity. I’ve analyzed the mistakes, I’ve dwelt in the what ifs, and now I’m going to try to move forward differently.
Slowly. With intention. Eyes wide open.
I’m looking for redemption and restoration. And won’t He just do it?
Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up.
On Monday, my post exposed the fact that we are all flawed — not one of us is perfect. This re-post (from September 2019) further explores that ideaand the benefit of being in community.
We’re pretty hard on ourselves, aren’t we?
Last week, when the phone rang at work, I answered and gave the answers the caller was looking for. I stumbled a little bit, because the call had interrupted me in the middle of another task, but I heard the mother’s heart of questions, and I gave her honest answers. However, I didn’t follow protocol and provide only the prescribed answers I was supposed to give on an initial phone call. Instead, I provided a few bits that are usually reserved for a lengthier conversation so that they can be provided in context. In carelessly oversharing, I might have said too much and gotten in the way of a student receiving the help he needs.
Ask me if I scolded myself, tried to offer excuses, or felt shame.
I think you already know the answer.
In an Instagram post, an athlete who competed over the weekend expressed the emotion that comes from a missed goal, a less-than-hoped for performance, a perceived failure. I heard frustration, disappointment, and even anger — a bludgeoning of the self for not doing better.
I see it in my students, too. Even though we celebrate every success, hooray for each minor victory, and applaud the journey of all of our students, they know when they’ve read a word incorrectly or when they’ve missed the point of a story. I see their eyes look down, their shoulders slump. I hear their internal (and sometimes external) voices saying, “Ugh! I’m so bad at this!”
And, you know, sometimes we are bad at this — all of this.
We undercook the roast. We drip bleach on the darks. We spill coffee on a white shirt. We break glasses, run over nails, and forget to pay the bills on time.
Even worse, we spend time with family and fail to look our loved ones in the eyes. We don’t ask about one another’s relationships or jobs or health, and we poke open wounds intentionally.
We screw up, make mistakes, lack empathy, and are sometimes downright mean. And when we realize it, we can really rake ourselves over the coals, can’t we? We can stay up all night rehearsing and re-rehearsing scenes, imagining what could have been different if only we’d left the roast in the oven a little longer, had put the bills on autopay, or had really leaned in to see what was going on in the lives of the people sitting right next to us.
And if we stay there too long, we can begin to believe that not only do we screw up, but we are indeed screw-ups. We are losers, miscreants, pond scum.
And once we have re-named ourselves, it becomes very easy to own that identity: I’m a screw-up, and I’m probably going to screw up more today. I don’t even know why I bother trying, I’m just going to get it wrong again. We might not say the words out loud, but we can get a pretty elaborate tape running. Or am I the only one who tells myself, “Geez, why do I even go out in public? I always say the wrong thing! I miss the point over and over again. When will I ever learn?”
The narrative can get so loud that it can drown out the still small voice that says, “Yeah. You screwed up. You’re human. Forgive yourself. Apologize to the ones you may have impacted. Try again.”
Our internal narrative is frantic — wanting to go back and un-do. Its mantra is shoulda, coulda, woulda. It refuses to believe that life can go on, that this too, shall pass, that anyone could forgive us or give us another chance.
But if we can hear the quiet voice of the One who designed second (and third and hundredth) chances, the One who can restore even the most broken of relationships, the One who forgives the unforgivable, we might just hear (and believe) a different narrative.
We might be able to tell ourselves that people make mistakes. It’s a fact. We can’t get around it. I can probably expect to make a hundred mistakes on a given day. I’m definitely going to say the wrong thing, make the wrong facial expression, and laugh at the wrong time. It’s a given. I am going to forget to pick up an item even though it’s on my list, take the wrong exit, and leave a sweater in the dryer for way too long.
And when I do, I can shrug my shoulders and say, “Yup, I blew it again,” but instead of berating myself and burying myself in shame, I can forgive myself, apologize to the ones that were impacted by my actions, and try to move forward. Of course, I can take steps to minimize my errors. I could, for instance, slow down and double-check my list. I could pause and think about my words before I let them come out of my mouth. I could stand, for a moment, in the shoes of the person in front of me, and consider her needs, her heart, her life.
And, I might find that I’m able to hear that she, too, is listening to the shoulda, coulda, woulda mantra of self-blame and that she, too, is being tempted to own the identity of screw-up. I might be able to reach out, touch her hand, and say, “It’s ok. I screw up, too.”
And, you never know, we might embrace and offer one another absolution, “You’re forgiven. I’m forgiven. We’re forgiven.”
And, acknowledging that, as humans, we are going to find ourselves in this same space over and over again, we might agree to stick close, to lean in, to walk together, even when — especially when– times get tough, and messy, and it seems like all is beyond repair.
Because on our own, we can’t always distinguish what voice we are listening to, and we might need someone to call us back from the ledge — to take our hand and remind us that we’re gonna be ok.
We are. We’re gonna be ok.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
This post was written in April 2019 — just four months ago –however the theme and language resonate with Tuesday’s post, Screw ups, so I’m re-posting a tidied up version today, September 5, 2019.
Teachers sometimes utilize an approach called ‘layered instruction’ to ensure that all students attain mastery. Taking into account the individual learning styles and abilities of their students, they design multiple lessons using a variety of modalities over a period of time .
For example, when I was teaching writing, I introduced the importance of using sensory details by showing my students photographs. “Your writing,” I would say, “should include enough sensory details, that your readers begin to see images, like photographs, in their minds when they read your words.” For some students, that statement was enough. They would begin to include vivid details in their writing. Others needed guided practice in describing a scene.
“Show us where you were,” I would say.
The student might say, “in my bedroom.”
“Tell me what color the walls were. Was the floor wooden or carpeted? What kind of furniture did you have? What sounds did you hear?”
A couple students just needed a few questions to get their imagery flowing onto the page. Others needed to read a variety of models. Some needed to read their own pages out loud and get feedback from peers. A few picked up the concept quickly; some improved gradually over time. Most needed all kinds of practice.
Layered instruction starts with basic principles and, over time, adds nuance and a variety of applications to develop complexity and a thorough understanding of a concept or strategy.
I’ve been taking a course in “Humanity and Forgiveness” for a little over fifty years, and I’ve needed a layered approach. I wasn’t fully engaged in the content for a while, and I may have some undiagnosed learning challenges, so I’ve taken longer than some to get the basic principles. However, my instructor has continued to provide a variety of opportunities to move me toward mastery.
Here are some of the key ideas I’ve picked up.
All of us mess up. Most mess up every day. Even those who intend to do well cannot avoid missteps, oversights, and outright screw-ups. It’s in our nature. Humans are imperfect. The sooner we admit this, the better prepared we will be to manage the inevitable — the actual blunders, the resulting consequences, and the imminent regret. My five-year-old nephew told me this week that “Only God is perfect, Aunt Kristin.” He’s obviously a faster learner than I am.
We can choose to plan for the inevitable. Try this, “Hey, Self, I know you are going to try your hardest today, but you are going to get some things wrong. Some stuff you are going to mess up accidentally; you might even screw up a few things on purpose. It happens, so have a game plan.”
A game plan can be simple. “Hey, Self, in those moments when you realize that you’ve really blown it, how about you take a breath, acknowledge your mistake, forgive yourself, and then do your best to restore the situation.”
We can extend this mindset to others. “Hey, Friends, you are human. You make mistakes — it’s to be expected. You try hard all the time; I’ve seen you. So when I notice you run a stop sign, swear at your mother, or totally disregard the feelings of your friends or coworkers, I’m going to say to myself: ‘Well, there she goes being human,’ and I’m going to forgive you and lend you a hand, if you’d like, in restoring the situation.”
Harshly judging ourselves or others is destructive; it does nothing to restore a situation. If I have acted selfishly, neglected my responsibilities, or totally gone off the rails, calling myself an idiot or a loser will not help me feel better, do better, or move closer to restoration. If someone else has broken my favorite coffee cup, run into my parked car, or been rude to me on social media, categorizing them as a low-life miscreant or microbial pond scum, will not make me feel better or put me in a position to forgive them, myself, or any other human that rubs me the wrong way.
The healthiest response to screw-ups — our own and those belonging to others — is forgiveness. And forgiveness doesn’t make any sense.
Our pastor recently told the story of The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:21-35), which compares the forgiveness of monetary debt to the forgiveness of sin. It’s a brilliant approach for learners like me who can wrap our heads around the tangible (money) more easily than the intangible (mercy). In the story, an employer forgives his servant an enormous debt –let’s say a million dollars. The employee owed an amount so great he couldn’t fathom repaying, and his boss said, “I’ll cover it.” A million dollars isn’t just a number on paper that we can put a line through; it’s a stack of bills a million dollars high. If you owe me a million dollars and don’t pay me back, that money comes out of my bank account. I use money that I was planning to spend on a new home, a new car, or my kids’ education, to pay your debt. That’s what forgiveness is, my pastor said. God assumes our debt. He pays it.
Then, He offers us opportunities to “do unto others”. He assumed my million dollar debt; maybe I could cover the cost of someone else’s mistake.
How much does it ‘cost’ us when someone flips us off in traffic — a dollar? Can we let that go? Can we assume that loss? How about when a coworker talks about us behind our backs. What did that cost? Ten bucks? Can we cover that? What if someone breaks into our house? Assaults our child? Seduces our spouse? What “cost” is too high?
Major crimes might seem impossible to forgive, so it’s a good idea to practice on small ones. My husband snarled at me after a long week of work; I can brush that off. A coworker forgot to put supplies away before he left for the day; I can take care of that. The doctor’s office charged me the wrong amount; it’ll cost me a little time, but that’s ok, accidents happen. We can practice forgiveness by overlooking these small offenses.
My justice-obsessed heart had long kept track of all this little stuff; it had wanted a reckoning for every small crime. I practically had a balance sheet of what I was ‘owed’ for all the little hurts that had been inflicted upon me. I had been looking for repayment — a balancing of the books, an eye for an eye.
It’s in the Bible, you know.
But instead of repayment, I incurred more losses — dishonesty, betrayal, neglect, theft. My ledger sheet had me deep in the red. Everywhere I looked I saw someone who owed me, and I wanted repayment.
Here’s the problem: I, too, am human and have screwed up over and over again. If my mistakes were billed out to me, millions wouldn’t cover it. I have no hope of paying it all back. I am buried in suffocating debt.
And I hear the words, “I’ll cover it.” Just like that the bill is wiped clean. I owe nothing. Nothing for lying to my friend. Nothing for yelling at my small children when they didn’t understand. Nothing for neglecting my hurting teenagers. Nothing for holding onto judgment for every little (and big) offense that anyone ever did against me.
I owe nothing.
So I walk my ledger over to the shredder.
Before I release the paper to get chewed up by the row of teeth, I take one last glance. Some of those debts are large; assuming them will cost me.
But one more thing I’ve learned about Humanity and Forgiveness is that holding on to that ledger costs me more. Carrying around that spreadsheet and looking for repayment robs me of opportunity, of joy, of freedom.
During his sermon, my pastor, slapped this little tidbit on the screen:
Forgiving forgives the unforgivable; it can only be possible in doing the impossible.
Yeah. I can’t un-see it.
So, I do the impossible. I shred that spreadsheet, and instead of feeling the cost, I realize that I am free.
On Monday, I posted Game Tapes, and this morning, I found this piece that I wrote in August 2018 and was reminded of the journey I’ve been on for a while — a journey of moving forward.
Have you ever found yourself replaying the blooper reel of your life, only you’re not laughing?
It seems the highlight tape — all the moments where you really shined — has been lost or erased and the only film left is your missteps, failures, and blatant rebellious choices?
And you watch it over. and over. and over.
Yeah, I’ve been attending a private viewing for a while, so when our pastor opened up Titus on Sunday morning and started ticking off all the requirements for leaders in the church (being hospitable, self-controlled, upright, disciplined) and all the disqualifiers (being arrogant, quick-tempered, insubordinate, or greedy), I knew right where to cue up examples of how I have blown it and have proven myself to be unfit for the call, which is ironic, since my husband and I have spent our entire adult lives in church work. It wasn’t long into the sermon when I found myself slinking down into the pew, buried under the weight of conviction.
And at 52 years of age, it’s tempting to think “I’ve ruined it all. I can’t go back. I’ve caused so much damage.” And once that thought has formed, it threatens to become a truth that one might believe, even cling to.
So, I was sitting there slunk down, feeling pretty pitiful, when I heard my pastor’s voice say, “to the redeemed, all things are redeemed.” I wrote it down; my ears perked up.
I heard my pastor admitting his tendency to be so exceptionally hard on himself, afraid that he will get it wrong and fail his family, his church, his God. He said that when he had admitted this to a friend earlier in the week, the friend had replied, “If you are teaching your child how to ride his bike and he falls down, don’t you run to him and say, ‘it’s ok, we’ll try again.'” And I could see the scene: I could see my pastor bending down to his child, scooping him up, wiping his tears, and speaking those words of encouragement.
And as I saw my human pastor in my mind’s eye, I simultaneously saw my Father come stand beside me as I’m watching my blooper reels, and I heard Him say, “It’s ok. You can try again.”
While I was still taking in that image, I heard my pastor say, “Every failure has been wiped clean because we are in Christ.”
And then we were receiving communion.
I heard myself singing: Let no one caught in sin remain/ inside the lie of inward shame/ but fix our eyes upon the cross/ and run to Him who showed great love/ and bled for us/ freely he bled for us.
I was choking on the words because they were what I needed to hear. Inward shame is a lie. I have been caught in sin, but I don’t have to remain there, wallowing, slinking, hiding.
All has been redeemed.
If I believe that Christ died for my sins, then I believe that my sins are paid for — they are redeemed. I don’t owe a penalty.
It sounds really cheesy and Sunday school-ish.
Unless it’s true.
And it is.
Tonight, a full 36 hours after the pew slinking and song singing, I was reading Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow, and I saw this prayer:
I am just a mess.
It is all helpless.
What else is new?
I would be sick of me If I were You, but miraculously, You are not.
I know I have no control over other people’s lives, and I hate this. Yet I believe that if I accept this and surrender, You will meet me wherever I am.
Wow. Can this be true? If so, how is this afternoon — say two-ish?
Thank You in advance for Your company and blessings.
You have never once let me down.
And I think to myself, didn’t He just meet me where I was yesterday? Say noon-ish? And didn’t He prove again that He will never let me down?
He sure did.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus
I worked on my last blog post, “Choosing Community” for a couple of weeks — drafting, re-drafting, revising, and deleting. It was late Sunday morning, and finally satisfied with what I had written, I decided to publish. During the last hour or so of wordsmithing and fine-tuning, I had noticed a message in the upper right hand corner of my drafting screen; it was in a red font that probably even used the word ‘warning’. I think it said something to the effect that my ‘latest changes hadn’t been saved’. I shrugged it off and clicked the ‘publish’ button. Hm. Nothing happened. Ok, I thought, I guess I’ll refresh the screen, then the ‘publish’ button will surely work.
My latest changes had really not been saved. (Imagine that!) The last hour or two of work was lost. “I feel sick!” I said out loud. “Why didn’t I copy and paste to Word before I tried to refresh the screen? How am I going to recreate what I had? Why can’t I just slow down once in a while?”
I’ve had many of these kinds of moments in my fifty-two years of life.
Why didn’t I just look in the rearview mirror before I backed out of the garage into the car that was parked behind me?
Why didn’t I let the housecleaning wait while I took a short nap?
Why did I use that tone when I spoke to that child?
Why did I drive in that snowstorm?
How did I miss that? What was I thinking? What is wrong with me?
Sometimes late at night, like tonight, I lie down to try to sleep, and as I close my eyes, I see a replay of all the missteps and poor choices I have made in my life. It’s like watching a blooper reel, only I’m not laughing.
Instead, I’m fretting. My heart rate is increasing. I’m finding it hard to breathe.
If only I had _____________, then ___________________.
Over and over and over again.
Why do I punish myself so? Where did I get the idea that I would never make mistakes–that I would be a perfect daughter, friend, mother, wife, employee? Who told me that every mistake I make would have dire and irrevocable consequences for me and all the people in my life? I know who — me, that’s who.
I let everything weigh too. darn. much. I’m still kicking myself for a frustrated comment I made to one of my kids around 2001. Seriously.
As my therapist says, my expectations of myself are so high, not even I can see them.
So tonight, on the eve of my fifty-second birthday, I am deciding it’s time for a change. This old dog is about to learn a new trick.
Today and yesterday, as I was driving to and from work, appointments, and errands, I was listening to an episode of the podcast Invisibilia, called “Emotions” (if you’d like to listen to it click here). The episode discusses a different way to look at emotions (most of which was over my head but some of which was quite healing and liberating). One liberating part was the idea that emotions are learned and so can be re-learned or re-directed. The podcast, which cites the research of a professor at Northeastern University, in no way implies that emotions should be stifled or disregarded. (I’ve tried that strategy, thankyouverymuch.) Instead, it suggests that we often experience emotions in light of constructs that we have been taught or have believed about ourselves or about the world. For instance, I have, for whatever reason, long held the unspoken belief that I have to be right, even perfect — getting it wrong is unacceptable. This simple subliminal construct — ‘I need to be right’ — has shaped the way I have experienced failure. If I miss an item on a test, let down a friend, or break a glass while doing dishes (which I do about once a week), I have failed. Imagine all the mistakes an average human makes in any given day and you will have a rough estimate of how many times a day I consciously or unconsciously give myself the message that I am unacceptable.
Yeah. It’s pretty toxic.
Now imagine if I shifted my thinking to be based on the construct that ‘All of life is a series of missteps that provide opportunities for growth.’ If I lived my life based on this construct, I would expect myself to make several mistakes during the day, and rather than judging or belittling myself, I would instead search around each ‘oops’ for the growth or learning opportunity. I would make no fewer or no more mistakes, I would just have a different emotional experience. Instead of viewing a torturous blooper reel when I close my eyes, I might drift off to sleep watching a highlight tape.
Sound too Pollyanna-ish? I don’t think so. I think it sounds life-changing.
Get this — on Sunday, after I took a few minutes to accept the fact that my ‘final draft’ was evaporated, I sat back down and finished my blog post for the second time. It didn’t turn out the same as the lost version. As a matter of fact, as I was rewriting, I was still processing my thoughts about community, and I wrote myself to some different ideas than I had in the previous version. My mistake allowed me an opportunity to think a bit further about my experiences in community. My ideas had more time to flesh out before I finally hit ‘publish’.
Before I had even listened to the podcast, I had been provided an example of the concept that it was presenting.
Yesterday morning, a friend and I had a quick exchange of text messages which ended with her saying, “I don’t believe in coincidence,” and me responding, “Neither do I.”
This morning my first errand was to drive to a hair appointment before work. In autopilot, I took the exit that I typically take to work which was not in the direction of the hair salon. The exit ramp landed me in the middle of a traffic jam. I was at a juncture — I could belittle myself for not paying attention, or I could lean back in my seat and soak up the podcast. (Yes, I was at that very moment listening to the podcast about shifting mental constructs to allow for different emotional experiences.) The funny thing is, I knew it was a juncture. I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “Ok, I guess we’re gonna go this way today.”
It’s a small step toward a huge change. I am not expecting that I will notice each and every juncture like this. Because mental constructs reside deep beneath the consciousness, they have the power to shape our experience in very subtle ways. I’m going to miss some opportunities; I’m going to make some mistakes.
Nevertheless, I am hoping over time to shift from self-deprecation to tender grace. It’s gonna take some time, but I do believe this old dog can learn this new trick.
So, it seems like the turning would be the hardest part, doesn’t it? If you are headed down a road of your own choosing, recognizing that you are going the wrong way and deciding to turn around should be the most difficult step, shouldn’t it? I have not found that to be so. I have found two other parts of repentance to be much more difficult — 1) keeping my eyes from looking back, and 2) continually stepping forward.
Here’s the thing — walking down the road of my own choosing causes a ton of collateral damage. You would think that once I realize this, I would want to turn quickly toward a path of safety and run just as fast as I can. Not so. I am drawn to looking back at all the wreckage. I get lost in regret and what ifs. I keep thinking, “Oh my gosh, why did I do that? Why couldn’t I see how much I was hurting myself and others?” My eyes turn back and guess what happens next; my feet follow. Just that quickly I have lost my way again.
I can lose hours of my time paging through the photo albums of poor choices and missed opportunities. I mean, I can still lose sleep over the way I treated a childhood friend in 1972. A terse word with a student can occupy my thoughts all evening. I can make myself physically sick by rehashing parenting decisions and formulating ways to do things differently. It’s as though I think I can rewind the movie, cut out the scenes I don’t like, and splice in a version of how I wish it would’ve played out. But we can’t do that. What happened happened. I can’t undo what I did, and I can’t undo what others did. I can’t, but for some reason, my brain still wants to pretend as though I can.
And I think I know why. My mom and I were sitting side by side last week, watching the Olympics and lightly chatting. I mean, I thought it was light chatting until she said something about getting lost in her regretful thoughts. She said that she can spiral downward very quickly when she starts thinking about the mistakes she has made in her life, but when she feels herself doing that she says, “Get behind me, Satan!” I about jumped out of my rocking chair — she had hit the nail on the head! If the enemy can get my eyes turned toward regret, my feet follow. He just has to grab my chin and turn my gaze toward what I did wrong in 1983 or 1998 or 2004 and pretty soon my whole body has made its way back to a path of my own choosing and I am no longer aware of Jesus walking beside me. I can’t hear his voice any more. I don’t care to look into his eyes. I am a soldier on a mission to make things right, and you’d better get out of my way.
But, guys, I can’t make things right.
It won’t work.
I can’t undo what’s been done.
And I’m not supposed to try.
In these moments, I need the second part of the clause, but, so often, I miss it.
I hear, “repent,” but I don’t seem to hear “believe the gospel.” Or maybe I hear the words, but I don’t understand the message. I mean, what is the gospel, after all? It’s God’s commitment to me — He already knows that I am human, that I am bent on turning, and that I cannot of my own strength follow Him. He knows that I am going to continually walk down a path of my own choosing, and yet He has promised to be with me wherever I go. He doesn’t leave me or forsake me. He has seen all my lousy decisions. He has watched me ignore the people in front of me. He has seen me choose myself over others time and time again. And yet, He loves me. He has patience with me. He forgives me. He continually chooses to walk beside me, to reveal himself to me, and to allow me the time and space to choose over and over again to turn away from my destructive path and toward His Way.
And that is not all. He is in the business of redemption and restoration. He takes the wreckage from my past and transforms it into beauty. It’s beyond my comprehension. I thought my parents’ divorce was the end of my life, but God used that experience to prepare me to be the wife of a divorced man and the mother of his child. I don’t hold my husband’s past against him. It’s just part of his story, and now it’s part of mine.
In the mid-80s, I was anorexic. My whole life revolved around reducing the amount of food I ate and thereby reducing the amount of me. I was on a path of destruction that many never walk away from. However, God, in his grace kept walking beside me, he kept talking to me, and before I knew it, I had turned around. I was worried that I might have done irreparable damage to my body and that I would never have children, but my worries were for nothing, because God is in the business of redemption and restoration. Not only did he restore my physical and emotional body, he has used my path to minister to others who have similar stories.
Time and time again, I’ve heard stories of people who have witnessed God transforming much greater disasters into stories of restoration. It is what God does. He creates, he redeems, he restores.
Lately I’ve been spending way too much time in the photo albums of regret. There is a time and a place to look back and grieve. Sometimes we need to spend seasons in mourning. However, when mourning turns into self-blame and punishment, it’s time to close the album for a bit. It’s time to turn around, walk down the path that has been designed for me, listen to the voice of the One walking beside me, gaze into His eyes, and recognize that He is in the business of redemption and restoration.
God is faithful, and He will do it.
11 You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, 12 that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever.