Reflections of a Strong-Willed Child

A writer friend of mine shared an article about strong-willed children last night. I was scrolling my newsfeed during an intense episode of Scandal, using my “viewers discretion” as I’d been advised. I’m not even a mama, but the headline and the image of a cross-armed little girl made me pause. Before I even clicked the link, I stopped the show and reached for my journal because the Holy Spirit is no respecter of Netflix binges. And He had something to say.

The words “strong-willed child” might as well have been profane slurs to me as a little girl. It was a self-deprecating family joke that I never found very funny. People would compliment my Momma on her daughters, and she would laugh then tell them about her “strong-willed child” that mirrored all of her worst traits. Other parents would smile knowingly, and they’d talk Dobson-sanctioned parenting strategies, while I prayed the floor, or at least my mothers skirt, would open up and swallow me.

miss stubborn

The words stung because I couldn’t deny they were true. It wasn’t that I refused to obey, it was just that I always had a question or an opinion about everything. The word “no” left my mouth before I could bring my hand up to stop it. In the role of “big sister” I owned those 18 months of seniority like they’d given me a throne to dictate from. I recognized these things in myself but no matter how hard I tried to stop, I kept getting into trouble. Everything pointed to one character flaw: my strong will.

I hated my strong will. Despised it. I wanted to kill it more than anything in the world. My will became the enemy of God’s will, and I didn’t understand why it just.wouldn’t.die. The “old man” was supposed to pass away, all things were supposed to be new, weren’t they? Where was my “new man”? “Strong-willed” morphed into “rebellious” as a teenager no matter how desperately I prayed to be rid of the thorn in my flesh. This “quirk” of my personality became my besetting sin and the source of unending shame.

Until last night. Before I could even get pen to paper Jesus was reframing “the strong-willed child” in me. The same stubborn streak that did battle with my Momma for all those years has sustained me through some dark days. It supplied me the fortitude I needed to survive family dysfunction, sexual abuse, 10 years in a cult, and seasons of severe depression. But more than any of that, my strong will has been the greatest evidence of grace by driving me to cling to Jesus. What I saw as a fatal flaw He has used to keep my heart tethered to Himself, even when the circumstances dictated that I walk away. I didn’t break.

By the grace of God and with His help, I’ve drawn on that strength to fight the lie that I would always disappoint through undisciplined actions. I grew up. And I’m using the stubbornness I despised for 25 years to my advantage as I continue to seek healing. I can re-write my story and choose to leave a different legacy.

I used to think that being strong-willed doomed me to grow up a mean, bossy, control freak. I have my moments, just like any of us. But they no longer define me. I was a strong-willed child. Now I’m just strong.

Melting Steel Magnolias

There’s a magnolia tree I pass on my evening walks that you can smell from half a block away. The other night I tip-toed up to the low hanging branches to savor the fragrance. The leaves were heavy from afternoon thunderstorms. I pulled my phone out to take a picture of a saturated bloom, hunting for a postcard worthy image–the mascot of southern charm, a large blossom with curled ivory petals dusted by rain drops. But the only thing I could find were completely unfurled blooms, sagging and bruised under the weight of the rain.

Magnolia from my neighbors tree

Magnolia from my neighbor’s tree

I thought about those flowers for the rest of my walk. Magnolia trees are common here and several on my route are blooming now. None of the others smell as heavenly as that first tree, even with the humid summer air. The open blossoms set it apart, filling the air with its fragrance. By fully opening its petals the tree gained in attraction what it lost in beauty. Rather than just observe it from a distance I was drawn in by the intoxicating fragrance to bury my nose in the blooms and drink deeply.

If I were that tree, I would want steel magnolias, the picture of perpetual perfection. I could see myself telling the buds to stay closed, straining to keep my petals from unfurling too far. As a woman, the threat of fading beauty scares me. In the timeless words of Ms. Truvy, “Time marches on and eventually you realize it is marchin’ across your face.”  But that tree taught me something about surrender. It’s not afraid to trade one kind of beauty for another. It’s blooms fall open without fear that they will be the last. They offer their beauty and then their fragrance, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, because it is.

The word “open” has been a theme for me this week. In poetry, long phone calls, on my evening walks and in emails. I think it’s called “synchronicity” but I call it love notes from the Lover of my Soul. One of them came in an email from a friend with a Brene’ Brown quote.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection… true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

A magnolia tree convicted me to be open, vulnerable, seen and known. I hide the imperfect parts far too often from those who would most benefit from knowing I am human. Some might smile or click the “like” button from a distance when I share the lovely parts of my life, but the magnolia challenged me to melt the steel, and dare to let my imperfections be seen. It dared me to draw people in, to connect, to drink deeply together of the incense of openness.

A Lesson from Pain

I have a blister on my toe right now from a 10 mile hike I did with my sister on Sunday. Instead of rapidly improving, as I’ve always known blisters to do, it’s gotten infected. The day ended with me limping around pathetically and making a drug store run for pain relieving antibiotic ointment and band-aids.

And I’m here to tell you that hormones are a b*tch, because as I was getting ready to apply the band-aid to my ailing toe, I suddenly started crying like a little child, just because it hurt. So, naturally, what did I do? Feeling silly, I called my Poppie to cry and laugh at me with me. Being the good natured man he is, he chuckled a bit, but soothingly told me it was a perfectly good excuse to cry. He told me to put the phone to my toe so he could “kiss it” and make it better (he’s kinda cute, eh?). We joked for a bit about Rachel Fisters Blister, a favorite childrens book of ours from times past. 

I commented to a friend tonight how ridiculous it is that all my attention is focused on this toe. We noted that it’s odd how pain does that. It begs for all of our attention. My pain tolerance is particularly low, so if I’m experiencing pain to any degree not only will it demand my attention, but usually the attention of everyone around me. I’m a wimp.

But you know what? My Heavenly Father knows that I’m a wimp. And He still loves me. So often when pain is nagging at me to pay attention I don’t run to Him. I don’t want to bother Him with my stuff. I try to tough it out. But the thing is… He taught my Poppie how to be a good Poppie. If my Poppie wants to hug me and comfort me over a little hurt toe, how much more will my Heavenly Father embrace me when I’m hurting? He won’t scold me or call me foolish. There’s even a chance He allowed the pain to propel me to Him. He will provide a safe place to cry, and soothing words that heal a ruffled soul, even if they don’t anesthetize the pain.

I needed to remember that tonight. Whether I have a wounded toe or a wounded heart, His arms are always open. They’re open for you, too, dearheart. Run to Him.

Valentine Pink

I approached the register with hands full of art supplies and stood there for a few moments while the cashier stared out the wall of windows behind me, suddenly captivated. Apologetically,  she motioned towards the counter and admitted she was distracted by the sunset. I gasped as I turned to see that in the few minutes I’d been inside the sky had turned brilliant shades of pink and orange. It was a worthy distraction even if it was framed by a strip mall.

There was no one in line behind me so the cashier asked if I would mind her stopping to take a picture while it lasted. I gladly obliged and stepped out of the way so she could get a better view. After snapping a couple of photos and pocketing her phone she apologized, claiming it was cliche’ to love sunsets but she just couldn’t help it. I smiled and said I was just as guilty and I didn’t think it cliche’ at all. I told her that I feel like sunsets are God’s gifts to us, evidence that we are seen and loved. And maybe it was the hot pink hues turning me to sentimental mush, but maybe it was Jesus whispering to my heart as the words left my mouth.

“They’re like valentines.” 

She probably thought I was silly because she left my comments unacknowledged and quickly sent me on my way. But the exchange has stayed with me and ever since each sunset has felt special. God paints the sky with Valentine Pink, unconstrained by Hallmark holidays. We can know His love through something as simple as a color. So, pay attention. And next time the sky glows don’t apologize for pulling over to take a picture.

Valentine

 Some Valentines come more than once a year.

 

Skinny Dipping in the Deep

When I said “Yes” to Naked, I didn’t have a clue where it would lead me. I knew there was much that I wanted to explore, uncover and discover. I thought I would capitalize on every form of metaphorical nakedness: emotional, spiritual, relational. Maybe that those areas would somehow leak over into the physical, boosting my confidence. I did learn a lot about nakedness in the intangible sense this year. But from the very onset God surprised me, unmistakingly leading me down avenues I never would’ve imagined for myself. In the last year my mind has been renewed and my life transformed by the truth that God calls the physical body “good.” I am forever changed, so much so that I want to write a book about my experiences, testifying to the healing and freedom that I’ve found. A few blog posts wouldn’t do it justice.

One of the more surprising things I’ve learned this year is that pornography (defined as a depiction of the sex act or obscene drawings or photographs) is not synonymous with nakedness/nudity. After extensive bible study I have found that the Lord only ever calls His created image good. His people ascribe all sorts of slanderous words and deeds to the body. But He, Himself says that it is good, a fact which never changed after the fall. And His is the perspective that I long for and want to live according to.

I think it’s tragic that the image of God has become a villain that we fight against and refuse to see. We need redemption. 

The Lord has brought some incredible people into my life from all different faith backgrounds who have come to see the same truth about the image of God. They love Him with all of their hearts, minds, and bodies, without shame. I am not alone in this, His spirit has been revealing the same truth to many and I’ve had the privilege to meet and talk with a few of them. They have helped me understand that the gospel, the good news, is even in this. We don’t have a list of do’s and don’ts or rules to follow. According to His word we have radical freedom to see His image in one another. And that’s something I can be passionate about.

At the beginning of the year I made a list of goals, things I wanted to do as part of the Year of Naked. I challenged myself to pray naked in front of the mirror, join a small group, answer honestly when someone asks how I’m doing, get a massage, visit an art museum and let the human form awe me instead of looking away. I did all of those things, and more. The list isn’t finished. There’s room for more things to be added and more to be crossed off. The Year of Naked may be over but I’m not sure I’ll ever be finished with the word.

So if you find me changed by this year, you’d be right. If I seem a little bit defensive of these truths, bear with me. Because I’m not just telling you about something I’ve thought a lot about. I’m not just running a theory by you. I’ve learned the truth about the body in the fires of experience, and the healing blood of Jesus has redeemed it all for good.

WaterstoSwim

When I waded into these waters, I swore I’d only get my feet wet. But before I knew it the water was to my knees, to my waist, and then I was skinny dipping in the deep. It wasn’t a river to be crossed once and then left behind. It was a sea, one that I’m meant to live by. And just like the water in Ezekial 47, it brings life to everything it touches.

Naked wasn’t just a word. It was a baptism. 

Going Bare: Is it Good?

By Lin Kristensen from New Jersey, USA (Timeless Books) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
 I’m not a theologian. I’ve not been trained in exegesis or hermeneutics. Typically, when I do a word study it is compact, focused on one use of one word and drawing rich meaning from that place. I am not the person to talk to if you want an exhaustive analysis. Having said that, I’ve now done an extensive study on the word “naked,” and have concentrated specifically on where and how the word is used in the Old Testament.
 
I found that there is more than one word for “naked” in the Hebrew and not all of them mean the same thing. Some are nouns, some are adjectives, but some are verbs, action words that are used to describe the act of uncovering someone. ‘Arah and ‘Uwr are used in instances of taking away someone’s protection, laying them bare, forcing them to be vulnerable, and even violating them. Generally when those active forms of the word are used they are not associated with anything positive. Nakedness defined in this way couldn’t possibly have been a good thing.
 

Even with all the confidence I’ve gained in my body this year, I would still feel violated if you came up to me after a shower and stole away my towel. I would attempt to cover myself. Involuntary nakedness is one of the most unpleasant forms of exposure. It’s something none of us desire. And we should not seek to forcefully expose anyone in our lives. Confrontations such as that are full of shame, reproach, and many more unpleasant things. You will not find in me an advocate for this form of the word.

 
Unfortunately, the negative verb for nakedness is the only filter through which many Americans have been taught to view their bodies. But what does God think of our bodies? That’s really the question I want the answer to here.  I want to filter my view of myself and others through Him – not through my perceptions, culture, shame, or upbringing. So, in order to better understand what God thinks of nakedness, I isolated the places where the word “naked” is used as an adjective, to describe someone’s state of dress (or lack thereof). There are two words for this, and they are the ones most commonly used in the Old Testament: ‘arowm and ‘eyrom. There is nothing particularly revelatory in the definitions of their definition. They simply mean “naked” or “bare.” Very straightforward.

Out of all the places where these words are used I can’t find an instance where God condemns nakedness. If anything, He remains neutral when it is mentioned. Some of His people certainly condemn it. They use it to shame and punish one another. But it seems to me that the only place God comments on our bodies as He made them is in the Genesis account, where He declared us “good” in His image. It was under that benediction that Adam and Eve knew no shame. As far as I can tell, His declaration of our bodies as “good” did not change when the knowledge of good and evil entered humanity. God clothed us for protection in the wilderness when He banished us from the garden of paradise. And the last time I checked “Thou shall not see nakedness” didn’t make the 10 commandments. I’m not inclined to put words in His mouth that simply are not there.

God’s view of His created image in the earth did not change when humanity became sinful. We are the ones that changed. We are the ones that hid our nakedness. We are the ones that allowed shame to create barriers between ourselves and God. How many times will the same scene from Eden be re-enacted? 

“Rebekah, where are you?” 

“I heard you, but I am afraid, because I am naked. So I hid myself.”

“Who told you that you are naked?”  

What a heart piercing question. He knows the answer, but He asks anyway.  And still He does not condemn us for our nakedness. Adam and Eve were condemned for their disobedience, and in a heartbreaking turn of events removed from His constant nearness and fellowship. But God created us for Himself, for His pleasure, and that didn’t change when sin came into the picture. Rather, it set in motion the plan He had before He even spoke the light into existence – His plan of beautiful redemption. 

Ever since the flaming swords were ignited, God has been diligently working to bring us back into meaningful covenant with Himself. All throughout the old and new testaments we recognize the call He makes in the cool of the evening.

“Draw near to me. Come out of hiding. Let me cleanse you. Let go of your clothing. Be naked. Let me clothe you with righteousness.”  

I want to respond to His call. Not from my hiding place, but out in the open. I want to lay my fear aside and stand before Him just as Eve did, but with Jesus, the Last Adam by my side. Because of His sacrifice on the cross, I know I can approach Him with confidence, naked and completely vulnerable.

Hieronymus Bosch – The Garden of Earthly Delights – The Earthly Paradise (Garden of Eden) Public Domain

May I speak frankly? I’m no longer talking about nakedness in a strictly metaphorical sense. In the last 8 months my mind has been renewed and my view of the body has been transformed by application of the truth that God calls the body “good.” I have learned experientially that there need not be anything sexual about the sight of the unclothed human form. I’ve come to appreciate the body for the masterpiece of art that it is, with all of its graceful curves and lines. It still takes my breath away.

I realize this is controversial. The easy thing for me to do would be to go on letting you think that I’ve only applied my word for the year in intangible ways. But that isn’t the truth. I dared to examine conventional views of nakedness, both those taught by the church and the society of white privilege I grew up in. When I removed the lie that western culture has taught me about nakedness and replaced it with God’s declaration of goodness, I was amazed at what happened in my heart.
  
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” – Matthew 5:8
 

He purified my heart, and I realized that the spirit is not all that matters. The body is redeemed as well.  Suddenly I was able to recognize His image when I saw another person, no matter what their state of dress. I let go of the perpetual filter of judgment over what someone is (or is not) wearing. It’s become so much easier to see the beauty in them and love them. 

Surprising isn’t it? Rather than sending me into dangerous shadows of shame and sin, the word “naked” has set me on a path of greater purity, wholeness and redemption. I don’t speak theoretically; I’ve tested this, at first thinking it was too good, too easy to be true. I’ve seen more nakedness this year than ever before in my life, completely free from the conditioned response of lust, shame, comparison and judgment. “Naked” is changing me in ways I never could have anticipated. 

But if I’m being honest, I don’t want to be alone in this. And quite frankly, the truths that I’m learning are too good not to share. I have found so much healing; so much has been redeemed. I dared to lay aside the comfortable cultural view of our bodies to see through His eyes. So I want to dare you to do the same.  Examine your own heart and mind to find out why you believe what you believe about the human body. Experiment with what you learn. Test it. I’m willing to bet that you’ll be surprised.

Feel free to ask any questions or raise objections. I’d love to talk about this with you.

Read the rest of the “Going Bare” series here

The Rescuer

The Lord gave me this vision ten years ago. Over time it’s come to have much more meaning than it did when I first saw it, ministering to me in countless ways. Today I share it here, with the prayer that the Rescuer of our souls would visit you with healing in His wings.  

I was kneeling on my bed, my head curled to my knees, trembling. My arms were wrapped tightly across my chest as though that would ease the pain and protect me from further harm. Tears poured down my face while I gently cried from fear I couldn’t explain, and couldn’t get rid of.

Gradually, the room around me faded and I was transported to the edge of a small clearing surrounded by thick, dark woods. There was commotion in the center of the clearing. I heard loud shouting and evil laughter. I crept through the trees, closer to the clearing to get a better view. Creatures I could only describe as demons were huddled around something throwing stones and beating it. I looked closely to see who or what it was, gasping in astonishment when I recognized the object of their torture. It was me. I saw myself there, huddled with my face to the ground in the dirt, weeping. I had chains around my wrists and bloodied dirt all over the rags I wore. The demons surrounded me on every side kicking my figure in the dirt and screaming curses that only made me wither further. Watching from the perimeter, I was paralyzed. I willed my limbs to move. I prayed that the form in the dirt would rise up and fight back. But I didn’t move an inch. And my form in the dirt was nearing unconsciousness.

Suddenly, the sound of a great sword leaving its sheath split the air. The demons looked around for the source of the sound and in that moment a clear domed shield miraculously descended over my form in the dirt, deflecting their weapons and effectively shutting them out.

RohirrimAttackOrcsFangorn

In unison, an army on horseback emerged from the trees completely surrounding the clearing. With a great cry they descended on the camp, swords drawn. The startled demons scrambled for their weapons and began to defend themselves, leaving their prisoner forgotten. While everyone was engaged in combat the commander of the army came riding through the camp on a great horse. The pathway cleared by His warriors, He rode straight towards my limp body. He paused only a moment to secure me onto His horse, held in front of him between  his arms and the reigns. Without crossing swords with a single demon, He rode out of the clearing and back into the shelter of the woods. I was no longer watching from the outside. Somewhere along the way, I became the wounded version of myself. With the change in my surroundings I became more alert, triggering the instinct to fight or fly. I tried to wrench free from him with all the strength I could muster. I pleaded with him, “Please let me go! Where are you taking me? Let me go,” I sobbed, defeated and weak. There was no chance for escape. We rode swiftly through the woods and the noise of the battle quickly faded, but the commander never spoke a word.

He obviously knew the forest well, for it wasn’t long before we reached a well-lit cabin that had no obvious path leading to it. The horse came to a swift halt and my new captor swung from the saddle in one quick, efficient motion. There seemed to be urgency in his movements. The commander reached to lift me off of the horse and carry me inside. But I grew hysterical, screaming and shoving his hands away, “No! NO! Get away from me! Don’t touch me! Let me go! Please!” He simply looked into my eyes, his full of compassion, and held his arms up to me, without touching me. Looking back at his steady gaze, I calmed down. I knew I couldn’t jump from the horse, so I let him lower me from the high saddle.

In silence He carried me inside and lowered my weary body to a small bed in a corner of the warm, one room cabin. The commander seated himself on the edge of the bed. I wedged myself against the pillows in the corner, knowing that attempting to get past him would only cause further damage to the wounds that filled my consciousness with more pain every passing second.

Another man was in the cabin. He was older than the commander with white hair and beard, but the same gentle eyes that spoke to his son upon our entrance. The two obviously had a close bond for they did not seem to need words. I sat there trembling, fearing what they would do to me. The older man left the woodstove where he was pouring hot water into a basin with clean towels. He came to the bed, sat down and looking into my eyes, he pulled away the blood-drenched rags hanging from my frame that covered the deepest cuts. Slowly and gently he washed away the dried blood and dirt that covered my wounds. I cried out in pain and tried to pull free but the commander held me with steadying hands and spoke gently, trying to calm me. I was too weak to fight any longer so I leaned back, spent and exhausted. My tears finally subdued and I slept.

I woke to find all my wounds cleaned and bandaged. The chains were removed from my wrists. My rags were gone and I wore a clean, white robe. The old man approached the bed where his son supported my beaten body. He instructed that my wounds would have to be kept clean and re-bandaged. But this time there was no protest. I knew that I was safe. Safe in the arms of my rescuer.