Eyes Open

Re-examine all you have been told in school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Wisdom resides in the heart of the discerning; she is known even among fools.

Proverbs 14:33, Holman Christian Standard Bible

Over the past several years, I’ve been on a journey. A journey of growth and stretching and learning and unraveling and untethering. It has brought a lot of internal conflict into my emotional and spiritual life as I’ve grappled with my convictions and held them up against things I’ve been taught from an early age and tried to make sense out of the gaps.

The more I do this wrestling, the more I understand that what I’m experiencing is just growing up. Growing into my own person. Being guided by the Holy Spirit into a new, holy life that is based not on religious or cultural traditions but by the Word of God and the Spirit. It’s uncomfortable and scary at times, pulling me away from church affiliations and previously held beliefs out into a bigger, wider expanse of the world that I’ve not experienced. But living any other way would be a shell of a life.

Our nation is facing its own sort of reckoning right now. Holding up its practices and policies against the values its said to have had, values like freedom and equality and human rights, and finding gaping holes. And if we don’t get to work on walking out into a new way of life, our country will rot from the inside out.

It starts with us as individuals. Choosing to open our eyes to injustice around us. Educating ourselves on other people’s experiences. Listening to people’s stories and believing them. Owning our responsibility in making change happen. Apologizing and righting wrongs we’ve committed against others out of hate or ignorance or indifference. Making sure that our homes are places where racist words aren’t spoken and racist ideas aren’t given any weight. And voting to make sure that our government leaders are doing the same kind of work.

The journey is long and tough at times, but it’s the path towards God’s heart. Come join us.

Memorial Day: Its Roots and Why They Matter

Constructed in 1792, the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club was one of the finest race tracks in the South. During the Civil War, it became a prison for Union soldiers, and in 1865, thanks to 10,000 recently freed enslaved Black Charlestonians, it would become the sacred location of the first Memorial Day celebration.

During the war, Union soldiers were held in the open air of the race track’s infield. More than 260 Union soldiers died of exposure and disease due to these horrific conditions. Confederates buried the bodies of the dead in a mass grave behind the track’s club house as Charleston fell to Union forces in February of 1865.

By this time, the city had been mostly abandoned by White residents. As news spread of the mass burial, Black freedmen joined together to unearth those bodies in the mass grave and give them a proper burial. Working for two weeks, these men carefully identified the dead, dug graves for each serviceperson, and marked the graves properly. Then, they built a high fence surrounding the graves, whitewashed the fence, and built an entrance to the cemetery with “Martyrs of the Race Course” inscribed in the archway.

1865 view of Union graves at Washington
Race Course. Source: Library of Congress.

This act of justice and grace was also an act of independence, a celebration of freedom that came at a deep cost for millions of Americans, slave and free, who had been fighting for human rights since the year 1619 when Africans were first enslaved in the swamps of Jamestown, Virginia to grow tobacco.

In the weeks that followed the race course burial, Black Charlestonians organized a parade to consecrate the place and remember the fallen. 2,800 Black schoolchildren and their teachers carried hundreds of roses, sang the Union marching song “John Brown’s Body” and marched toward the Washington Racecourse in Charleston, South Carolina where the 267 Union soldiers had been given proper burial just two weeks before.

Charlestonian students and their teachers leading the first Memorial Day celebration. Source: African American Registry.

Behind the children came waves of recently freed Black women and men, members of the Union infantry, and some White citizens. As many as 10,000 people all told gathered within the enclosure of the newly erected cemetery to show gratitude for the sacrifice given for their freedom and celebrate a second Independence Day, only now this independence would flow out onto the lives of those previously denied independence by their own nation’s Constitution.

Children’s choirs sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” and several spirituals and ministers read Biblical scriptures. After the planned activities, those gathered spread out on the very infield where Union soldiers had been held as prisoners of war just months before and enjoyed what many Americans today associate with Memorial Day: a good picnic.

This act of solidarity on the grounds of what had once been a place for planters to display their wealth and privilege (and even hold auctions to sell enslaved people) became the foundation on which our national Memorial Day holiday has been built. But as often happens in the American retelling of historical human events, the story line of resilience and service and pride of Black Americans that should serve as the driving force behind so many of our national celebrations today has been erased and subsequently replaced with later actions and celebrations of White people.

Over time, those buried in the Martyrs of the Race Course cemetery were reinterred to a national cemetery. Today, the race track is part of a city park named for a White supremacist and former governor of South Carolina, Wade Hampton. Hampton came from a wealthy planter and was known before the war as one of the largest slaveholders in the southeast. The so-called “Savior of South Carolina,” Hampton was also a state legislator and led the Redeemers, a southern political group dedicated to restoring White rule in the South following Reconstruction.

The Washington race track at Hampton Park today. Source: Visit Historic Charleston.

Stories matter. Telling the truth about our nation’s history matters. Celebrating national holidays with a full measure of knowledge and not a whitewashed version of the truth matters. May we all walk arm-in-arm today towards wholeness and restoration as we embrace the histories and experiences of all Americans and remember those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

Reference:

Blight, D. (2011). The First Decoration Day. Retrieved May 24, 2020, from https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/the-first-decoration-day/

Featured image: Memorial Day, illustration for The New York Times. Artist: Owen Freeman.

Woman: Rejected, Reborn Again

Almost a year ago, Rachel Held Evans passed away suddenly. On June 1, 2019, I watched the livestream of her funeral while sitting in my favorite chair with Polly snuggled up next to me, and I bawled my head off. While grappling with my faith and frustration with hypocrisy and double standards woven in and through the American evangelical church, her words had been carrying me. And though I had never met her, Rachel helped me dispel many untruths I’d learned as a child and adolescent, untruths that held my heart and spirit hostage for years.

When I was in high school, I began to see talents and gifts of mine stirring under the surface, pushing their way up through the fresh soil of my youthful self. But because of the church community in which I grew up, these gifts were limited, apparently, because I was not a man. I could teach, but only to girls. I could be on stage during worship services but only to sing, not pray or read scripture or preach unless the room was only full of women or kids in elementary school. All because I was female and not male.

The message all of this communicated to me was: you are missing this very important thing that you have no control over (being a man) that would make you qualified to do the work you think you’re being called to do. And because you are missing this thing, you’re going to have to find some other calling. In fact, since God says women shouldn’t do those things, this calling couldn’t have been given to you by God. So it’s probably something that you’ve misinterpreted or misunderstood, or worse, have conjured up all on your own because you want attention.

Some of these things were actually said to me, but most of them were simply implied in our church culture. Or said in my presence about other women by well-meaning church members and leaders.

To be clear, my parents always encouraged me to pursue my gifts. They were some of my biggest supporters (and still are). From gifting me a brief internship with missionaries in the Dominican Republic for my sixteenth birthday to advocating for me when a local church leader tried to undermine my standing in the church because I was pursuing a divorce from my then-husband, my parents have walked with me through this life so faithfully. But the culture we grow up in can be so suffocating, and in my case, the message from our church culture in my youth stomped out any truth my parents spoke to me during these years.

I stumbled through the rest of high school in a bit of a haze, feeling unseen by the people I loved and trusted, seeking solace in things like relationships with cute boys and unhealthy amounts of exercise and obsession over food, either depriving myself or indulging myself depending on the day. And in all of it, what was lost the most was the love I felt from God. Because not only had my church rejected my gifts but so had God. And in rejecting my gifts, hadn’t he rejected me, too?

From that time on, I’ve been walking with a limp. Not only did I feel rejected by my Creator and my church community, the people our lives were centered on, but I also started doubting my intuition. I questioned my ability to see and know myself. I questioned my ability to hear from God at all. I felt so stupid for getting it so wrong.

Looking back, what enrages me most about this is that I never considered that maybe the church had gotten it wrong, not me. And it wasn’t until I stumbled upon Rachel Held Evans’s blog a few years ago that I even entertained this notion.

The first essay of hers I ever read was “Confessions of an accidental feminist.” What started with an attitude of skepticism (because how could a Christian also be a feminist?) shifted to dumbfoundedness and then relief and then open weeping.

Evans’s perspective and her truth-telling about who Jesus is and how he treated women contrasted with what my church upbringing taught me about women gave me the permission I needed to start asking some pretty big damn questions. Not just about my religious experiences in childhood but also about who I am as a beloved woman in the eyes of God and about how God sees all of us.

The optimist in me would like to wrap up this whole recounting and reflection with a neat little bow. But that’s just not real life. Eight years later, I am still walking with a limp. But the more I read the Scriptures, and the more I surround myself with wisdom and insight from people who don’t align themselves with the complementarian beliefs my childhood was steeped in, the closer I am drawn to the heart of God and find peace in seeing who he has created me to be. In a way, it’s been a sort of second rebirth for me.

And you know what? I think that all of those years ago, when I felt God nudging me to be a truth-teller about his love, to teach about his mercy and unending lovingkindness and acceptance of “the other,” I think that I didn’t get it wrong after all. Thanks be to God.

From the Other Side

Two weeks into my maternity leave after having Luke, I was laid off from my job. Since I was a property manager living onsite, we were given 72 hours to vacate our home. My then husband was unemployed, and our savings were nil. It was truly one of the scariest times in my life.420776_110079595817575_861439767_n

I had a sixteen-month-old and a newborn baby and nowhere to go. Our parents helped us find an apartment in town. The youth group from a local church moved us in within hours. And even though it took about three months, I found a part-time job that would keep us afloat until I went back to school to eventually become a teacher.

91437800_1595259927299527_4447399636704952320_oI found this mug in the Walmart clearance section that Christmas. I sipped my coffee most mornings during that season in my life with tears streaming down my face and anxiety crippling my mind. It would be just six months later that I would make some big life-changing decisions and start on a new path that led me where I am today.

This mug reminds me that no matter how scary and impossible life feels sometimes, it is temporary. It reminds me that I am strong as hell and can rise above my present situation. It reminds me that there’s nothing like a woman with a made up mind. And that on the other side of what I’m going through is something beautiful and worth holding out for. I needed this reminder today. Maybe you do, too.

The Storm

 

Dear Ellie,

I recently ended a relationship with someone I loved very much. Things were really good between us for a good while – almost five years – but over the past several months, somehow we stopped being happy together. In every way, he was exactly what I needed. Except this: he’s married.

I know, I know. I know what you’re thinking. He’s not married like everyone else I see is married. He’s married in the “we live in the same house but haven’t touched in years” way. He and his wife even sleep in separate bedrooms, for crying out loud. They haven’t been happy together for a long time, if ever.

What started as a really great friendship between us has evolved into a complete clusterf*ck and now I’m afraid I’ll never talk to him again. 

I’m writing you now because I woke up to an email from him this morning. Promising that he was going to see an attorney and get the ball rolling on a divorce. Begging me to reconsider. Telling me all the things I already know – that we are perfect together except for this small detail.

I’m afraid that I’m not strong enough to end this relationship and move on with my life. I have given him five years of my life and looking back it seems as if it’s all been a complete waste. I’m also afraid that I’ll never find this kind of love again, that every other man I meet after this will pale in comparison to him.

Am I a complete asshole for wanting him to leave his wife for a relationship with me? How do I move on with my life without constantly looking in the rear-view mirror at what I’m leaving behind?

Love,

Dead End Road


Dear Dead End Road,

I am so sorry for your heartache. Ending a relationship with someone you love is one of the most gut-wrenching choices to make. When I think of the five most traumatic experiences of my life, the end of a relationship in one way or another fills the top three spots.

When I was in the middle of my divorce, friends surrounded me in ways I didn’t know friends could. I had no idea how many people really cared about me until I started walking through the fire and they joined me on the road of coals.

One of these people I had known since college. We were just acquaintances for years, but even then we shared a strong connection. I was drawn to his intellect, the thoughtful way he moved about his life, the love he had for his child, and, if I’m being honest, how much he seemed to like me. He was married, too. But much like your mister. Over the years, we developed a strong friendship based on mutual respect and care.

As my divorce was finalized, I found myself becoming more and more drawn to this man. I felt safe with him. As much as one can by someone living states apart. It was probably the first time in all my life that I’d felt sheltered by a man who was not a family member. Reeling from a terrible marriage, this feeling of safety and security was something I craved.

It took me a long time, but I finally came to understand the huge mistake I was making by investing so much of my time and emotional capacity in someone who was still at least one foot in his marriage. Looking back, it seems so obvious. But when you’re eyeballs deep in feelings for someone, it is tough to see things clearly.

What was so difficult about this realization was that it came way too late. In the process of trying to figure out what the hell to do with the mess we created, this man and I destroyed the friendship that we had enjoyed for over a decade. To date, it is one of the deepest, most profound losses of my life.

Love is something that moves freely between two people. It is not forced, and it is not compelled.

Dead End Road, you are not an asshole for wanting this man to leave his wreck of a marriage for you. But it doesn’t really matter what you want for him. What matters is what he wants for himself. You could be the perfect woman, everything he needs, but you will never be able to convince him to love you fully. Love is something that moves freely between two people. It is not forced, and it is not compelled.

So I would encourage you to shift your focus to the second question you ask: How do I move on with my life without constantly looking in the rear-view mirror at what I’m leaving behind?

At the heart of your letter, Dead End Road, is a profound need to be loved. I can say that because I know exactly what that feels and looks like. This man – and any other person for that matter – will never be able to love you the way you must love yourself first. For me, it meant that I started some intense self-care practices that I used during my divorce. I made a list of all the things that brought me joy or calmed me or made me happy, and I committed to doing at least one of those things every day. By taking care of myself, I was able to shift my focus from the man I cared about to what mattered more than any other relationship – the relationship I had with myself.

I also reached out to safe female friends who loved me and who had earned the right to hear my shame story. I knew that these “move a body” friends would not judge me, that they would look me in the eyeballs and be willing to hear every guilt-filled detail without wincing or rolling their eyes. I knew that they would walk with me down the path to my own healing, and that we would all be better for it.

I’m now almost four years down this path, and while it has not been easy, I have learned so much about myself and about what an authentic, loving relationship should look like.

IMG_9265
Photo courtesy Erin Alaine Photography

I am now married to a man who is one of the most devoted, sacrificing, forgiving people I have ever known. The love we share is rich and full and imperfectly perfect. He sees my flaws and loves me all the more. And you know what? He is 100% dialed in to our relationship. He’s not tied up in anyone else’s apron strings. He’s willing to do really tough things to love me well. I trust him completely.

The work that lies before you is worth it, my dear. It is grueling and will make you want to bawl your head off every now and then. But on the other side of that hill is a whole life full of whole love, and it’s waiting for you.

During that broken-hearted season in my life, these lyrics from a song by Mumford & Sons entitled “After the Storm” were a soothing balm for me. I hope they will be for you as well.

But there will come a time, you’ll see,
with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart,
but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
With grace in your heart
and flowers in your hair.

I believe that all of our past experiences come together to create the people that we are – beautiful and broken and altogether breathtaking. As I’ve grown in my understanding of failures in life, I’ve learned that the only true way to be restored is to embrace them, to hold them tightly to our chest and let them shape us into stronger, softer, deeper feeling people.

You see, Dead End Road, you’re not on a dead end road at all. While the path you’re on might not be clear right now, there is so much more life and love in front of you. One step in front of the other, I’m sure you’ll find your way. And women like me who have walked this same road are standing on the sidelines cheering you on.

On my wedding day a little over a year ago, I wore a flower clasp in my hair to honor that difficult season, to pay homage to the woman who was broken and hurting and trying to find her way to a healthier, more love-filled life. Now, when I see that clasp resting among my other bridal jewelry on our dresser, I will think of you, too. I’m rooting for you, my sister.

Ellie

If you want to reach out to Ellie, you can contact her here.