squishy skin and other unmentionables: a path toward belonging

Sitting on a beach near Miami recently, I was struck by all the beautiful bodies. South Florida: land of sensory overload. Bodies seem sculpted, perfected through multiple interventions. Couples look so perfect, so fashionable, that it is easy to believe every other person must be someone famous, right? In a place like that it is tempting to lose your self in the watching of others.

The striking image of one couple is seared in my mind. I have not forgotten seeing them together, and although we did not speak, they taught me a great deal about how to live a meaningful life. I was not struck by their perfect chin lines, yoga arms, mirrored glasses, bangled wrists, or loafers covered in the sheen of wealth. I was not tempted to think they were famous, and I did not envy the perfection they displayed to those around them.

In fact, they were old and flabby, and our only interaction involved me watching them as they put sunscreen on each other.

The man wore swim trunks, pulled up high, just below his rib cage in the way that elderly gentlemen often do. His wife’s face was framed with white frizzy curls, her body in a floral one piece that had seen many a season. They shuffled onto the pool deck together, like so many other retired couples in South Florida. As they began to settle in to chairs, getting out their books and bottles of water, she seemed struck by the ocean before them, and paused, taking it all in. Meanwhile, he reclined, and soon she sat and began putting sunscreen on. She used the good stuff, thick, and so hard to apply one can only hope it created a formidable block to all those carcinogenic rays. Done with the places she could reach, she handed him the bottle, held up her hair, and, without a word, turned around.

He rose from his chaise lounge, poured sunscreen into his hand, and then began to rub it all over her back. She was chunky, so his fingers squished the skin, pinching and rolling her excess, rubbing every square inch, in full public view. In a place where every body is perfect, such a scene felt almost offensive. How brave she was to stand there with her squishy skin exposed! It was a little gross, but I was mesmerized. They were so clearly comfortable together, so aware of their imperfections and their need for each other just to get through a day at the beach, that the eyeballs of the world were irrelevant to them.

It was ugly, but it was also beautiful. (As life often is).

 Here is what they taught me: if we want to be known, to walk through life growing in meaningful connections with others, we have to expose our ugly parts. Many of us can access our desire to belong, to be in easy community, to be a part of an “us.” When told it will require vulnerability, honesty, and exposure, however, most of us decide to pass. We want the easy comfort of being known and loved despite (or, dare I say, because of?) our infirmities, but we don’t want the daunting challenge of admitting we need another person to get all up in our business in order to do life.

We do though. Watching this anonymous older couple forced me to pose a hard question: If I share a lot of life with someone else but s/he never gets to lay hands on my ugly squishy parts, then what am I doing with my time? Moreover, are meaningful, life giving relationships possible if I am always mindful of how much I share, deciding when to be authentically honest and when to hold back just in case it is not safe to go all in?

If we long to be known, cherished and held onto, we have to expose our vulnerabilities.

The hard to reach places on our backs are small reminders that we were made to depend on others. We thrive when we belong, when we are reachable. Interdependency works best when we are open about the parts of us that aren’t camera ready.

As I often find in the beautiful truth of an image that imprints the soul, I also noticed that when we allow ourselves to be touched in the most embarrassing parts, we might find ourselves helped and even protected. Truth be told, the sweet old man was not particularly loving in his sunscreen application; still, he was willing to get messy, all up in his wife’s business, to protect her. The truth is that we can’t make it on our own. We need each other in ways we can’t even imagine. What a worthy thing to know, to say out loud, and to try to live by.

Of course, the best part about all of this is that those places we love to hide are also the places that long for an embrace. When we are touched there, in the spots we want to ignore, we know, deep in our bones, that we are not alone. Such a connection with others is incredibly beautiful, and worth exposing ourselves for. In ways small and large, I suspect we could all benefit from a little less curated image, a little more here I am, in all my (damaged) glory.

 Believing, as I do, that we all carry the imprint of God in our created selves, I suppose the lesson here for me is that we diminish our capacity to thrive in community when we hide any part of our being. While it is true that it is scary to expose ourselves, I suspect it also feels really lovely to be seen, touched and known.

on advent: we need help admitting we need help

In the past month, I’ve had the privilege of sitting with two families as they said goodbye to their beloved, grandmother, sister, wife and friend.  These women lived gorgeous lives, loving and blessing and laughing all the way, each day until they were suddenly taken from us.  Funerals are terrible.  But they are also beautiful. A time to grieve and reflect and honor and remember and thank.  And sometimes, in the most precious of miracles, funerals are a place where deep sadness becomes hope.  Maybe that is why these funerals have helped me become an Advent person. On this, the first day of Hanukkuh, a holiday that remembers when God rescued and restored Israel, miraculously multiplying meager resources, I’d like to argue that Advent is a time to admit we need help, and that this acknowledgment moves us from despair to hope.

As much as I know that binaries destroy our ability to love ourselves and others with the nuance demonstrated by God and required of us, I kinda love them.  I often think of myself as reasonable, and many others as uber-biased, or at least uninformed.  I often think of myself as a person loving people well, while I see selfishness in others.  I often see the vulnerabilities—deficits even—in others, while I see the nobility in my own efforts, and the efficacy in my actions.  These perspectives are utter bullshit, of course.  I am unreasonable, uninformed, selfish, vulnerable and deficit-laden.  In that way, I am human, just as you are human; we should recognize binaries as the toxic delusions that they are. 

Those who know Jesus have a choice this Advent: Will we continue to live as if we neither need nor know the Messiah described in scripture, or will we get to work—vulnerabilities exposed—building the Kingdom of Christ this world is surely becoming?

Advent is a season that knows this, although a person could be forgiven for thinking it is a thing designed for comfortable people living in cozy homes, not for people who desperately need to be rescued.  Many of us have sanitized not just the birth of Christ, but His own stated reason for coming.  The truth is that Mary and Joseph were very poor, and very alone, and very far from comfortable people having thoughtful conversations in important places. The truth is that Mary was very pregnant, they were very young, and they were so desperate for rest that they accepted an offer to sleep in a barn.  The truth is that she could have died delivering Him, and it was not at all clear in that moment that this was the protected and predestined moment designed to save the world.  Joseph probably felt the same sense of helplessness and pride that most partners feel when their wives are entering the ring of fire that produces precious life.  It was probably terrible.  And it was probably beautiful too.

I so often act as if Jesus came, angels sang, sheep and cows and horses were super not-terrifying, and the king of the universe became a human.  I add to that misunderstanding of the historical narrative the blasphemy that God sent His Son so that comfortable, American evangelicals could be super clear about who God doesn’t approve of.  That the Messiah came so that awesome self-sufficient people could have awesome quiet times, or so awesome people could attribute to God their remarkable ability to hoard wealth.  When we read the early stories in Luke and Matthew, we know that this understanding of Advent is a deep misunderstanding. 

If we look at the prophecies that predict God’s advent, it becomes clear that the Messiah comes for those who live in darkness, for the burdened and oppressed, for the grieving and captured.  He comes to bring light and ease and comfort and freedom for them.  He comes for those who are ignored, marginalized and abused by the systems that benefit me. 

I need to believe in a God who comes after me with rest and healing when I pretend I need neither.

When we sanitize the Christmas story and the life Christ lived, it is not just hurtful for those whose vulnerabilities define them to the world.  That outlook also incentivizes the rest of us to act like we are not vulnerable, not in need of rescue; as if we regularly embody our best selves, and our moments of need (stressed, screaming, frantic, cussing, harried, insomniacal gluttons who just want to rest) are few and far between.  But this is not who I am.  

I very much need rescuing, from myself and for myself.  I need to believe in a God who allows me to be a mess, and deeply loved.  I need to believe in a God who comes after me with rest and healing when I pretend I need neither.  An honest look at Advent begs us to remember the way of Christ—from the beginning—is the way of broken, obscure people who long for recognition and rescue.  The beautiful arc of Christian doctrine tells us that Christ came once into the world to provide an eternal avenue to belonging, and that Christ will return to fully establish the earth as a place where all flourish, where all is made right, where the table is big enough for everyone.  In the meantime, followers of Christ are tasked with joining the child born unto us in His work of justice and righteousness; we live to establish a world where the dignity of every person is assumed, where vulnerabilities are met with compassion, and the grace we all live under is obvious. 

That is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings.  God marches right in.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In Handel’s Messiah, nestled in the middle of the greatest chorus ever written, lives the line, “The Kingdom of this world, is become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ, and of His Christ.”  This world, this beautiful-ugly place, has been redeemed, is being redeemed and will be fully redeemed by Christ so that all of us will belong.  Margins will not exist, and people will not hide in shadows.  It seems to me that people who know Jesus have a choice this Advent: Will we continue to live as if we neither need nor know the Messiah described in scripture, or will we get to work—vulnerabilities exposed—building the Kingdom of Christ this world is surely becoming?

Funerals offer us the unique chance to celebrate a well-lived life.  The chance to make meaning out of our attempt to live with others.  The chance to recognize the best in another.  The chance to collectively acknowledge that we are all barreling toward the end of ourselves.  The chance to acknowledge we need each other to flourish, and that caring about each other actually matters.  Perhaps Advent offers us a similar chance to remember our own deficits, to thank God for coming toward us when we are needy, and to align our actions with God’s approach to humanity.   Advent offers us a chance to hope.  If we are not moving toward hurting people with that hope, we are not following the Messiah.

on thanksgiving

It is strange to think Americans have a holiday set aside for gratitude, as if we accidently still believe that saying thank you is so important we need some time off to do it properly.  I love it.  I love the fact that it is a 4 day holiday for many people, a holiday in which the stressful part happens on the first day, leaving 3 days to just be.  The first time my husband and I decided not to do the Thanksgiving Dash, where we tried to see our two families in two different states in five days, we felt like we had discovered the country’s best-kept secret.  It was like a Christmas Miracle to spend a day watching parades while we cooked scrumptious food for friends, followed by a 3-day pajama/football/leftover fest.  If you have never not travelled, I highly recommend it!  For this week set aside to give thanks, I offer a few moments of gratitude….

In my life I have found that the degree to which I recognize my own vulnerability—confessing it to God and others—is the degree to which I am able to create space for others to recognize their vulnerabilities. 

I’m grateful to know my need.  This year has shown me that I am vulnerable, and that I am privileged to live a life in which my vulnerability is not evident to all.  But it’s there, and my efforts to conceal it or expose it deeply shape the way I engage with others.  In my life I have found that the degree to which I recognize my own vulnerability—confessing it to God and others—is the degree to which I am able to create space for others to recognize their vulnerabilities.  When I hold my own desperation loosely, allowing it to shape my identity, I am better able to see and interact with people who struggle with their own insecurities by offering them dignifying compassion and empathetic companionship.  I am thankful for an increasing awareness of my need.

I am grateful for the circle of failure I am in.  (Let’s be honest, most days I am NOT grateful for failure in myself or others.)  I can’t deny that this year I have had to work relentlessly to battle despair, anger and cynicism, and yet I have often fundamentally failed at basic civil relationships.  I have been profoundly lonely, alienated from the people I grew up around, from fellow citizens, and from many people who claim the same Christ I love.  Being ticked all the time doesn’t work though.  I am grateful for a growing awareness that I cannot live reacting with anger and judgment.  I am working to find another way to appreciate others, even when they baffle me.  I am working to replace judgment with curiosity, cynicism with hope, and apathy with constructive engagement.  This work is miraculously beginning to change my instincts: If I believe all people are created in the image of God then I cannot dismiss anyone as ridiculous, bigoted or unworthy.  This awareness is forcing me to lean on grace, to rely consistently on a force outside myself to care well for others.  It requires me to realize that ‘there but by the grace of God go I’ into grudge-holding and finger-pointing meanness too.  I am grateful that I am constantly aware that I have a huge capacity to dismiss and judge others, and that it takes miraculous intervention to live differently.

Protesting unjust systems is not bad manners, but an acknowledgement of entrenched injustice and a belief that we the people can form a more perfect union together.

Finally, I am thankful for discomfort.  Protests make me uncomfortable, because I instinctively think there must be another way.  A nicer way.  A less disruptive way.  A more mannerly way.  However, immediately questioning the motives or methods of every protest suggests that the status quo is always just.  The status quo is not just for all people.  I have discovered this year that my discomfort with protest is not about the disruption or the activism; I believe both are necessary when we live in a racial and socioeconomic hierarchy.  Our laws and habits and systems are wrong all the time, and we have to work together to improve them.  Protesting unjust systems is not bad manners, but an acknowledgement of entrenched injustice and a belief that we the people can form a more perfect union together.  My discomfort comes from the binary reaction to such protests.  If you support Black Lives Matter then you must loathe police.  If you kneel during the anthem then you have no respect for our military.  On the other hand, if you are pro law-and-order, you must be a bigot.  If you think it is disrespectful to kneel, then you are racist.  These reactions enflame our worst projections, and prevent nuanced conversation.  They are labels and positions that do not reflect the vast majority of us.  They ignore the possibility that we could listen to learn instead of blindly reacting to each other in anger.  They destroy the likely reality that most of us can find merit in the perspectives of both sides.  I am grateful this year for these lessons, lessons I only learned because so many brave officers, protestors, veterans and players decided to stand or kneel or march or listen or speak up for vulnerable others.  I am grateful to realize that each of these issues is not two-sided, but multifaceted and complicated, and require us to all work together.  I am thankful my discomfort with our reactions to protests taught me to find another way, to educate myself and others, and to get involved in legally changing unjust laws and practices. 

This awareness is forcing me to lean on grace, to rely consistently on a force outside myself to care well for others.

In short, need, failure and discomfort have been my greatest teachers this year, and I am profoundly thankful.  These experiences sometimes result in despair, blame and anger, but they are more often leading me to see how I have been part of the problem, and I can work to become a part of a way forward.  Perhaps we could all do well to shout fewer positions and instead ask more questions.  Maybe we could all do well to point fewer fingers and instead listen to our own unfair and angry inner voices?  Might we all do well to examine our need, our failure and our discomfort for the gifts hidden therein?

Happy Turkeys, all!  Next week, I will begin writing about Advent, a season of expectancy important to those in the Christian faith.