Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
We sat on her couch, reaching out to one another tentatively. We quietly shared some stories about our lives as we journeyed with this new friendship.
I can’t remember what I shared that night, but whatever it was, it gave her the courage to share part of her story with me as well. Her words at first seemed harmless, but her ending left me feeling winded, as if I had landed on my stomach across a bar on a jungle gym…
This post originally appeared at SheLovesMagazine.com, the first post in a series of conversations about listening to the stories of those who have experienced being “Othered” in dehumanizing ways. Click on this link to head over SheLovesMagazine.com to read the rest of this post.
I love this clip from the movie, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, where the father laments the character of his daughter’s fiance’s parents.
It is an analogy that was used by a group of women who embraced doing theology together, who challenged the idea of theology as that which is relegated to a few select academics, reduced to abstract concepts, and sequestered solely in the “hallowed” halls of academia.
And today I woke up to the reality that it is an apt analogy for what has become of my faith and my spirituality. My faith has become dry, like a piece of toast… no jam… no butter.
I am empty. I have been running on fumes.
And how did I get here? Well, I got here through the illusion that because faith is my job, teaching about God and teaching about the Bible is enough to feed me and sustain me. I embraced the lie that I could manage without spending time with God on my own, without reading His word in my own time for my own benefit. But I have come to the end of my reserves.
When I came back from Rwanda, I felt broken and in despair. Even though there were glimpses of light on my trip, even though intellectually I could see the evidence of God and hope, I was blind. I was disconnected emotionally from the source of my being, so I could not fully enter into those spaces where hope and God were evident.
I cried out in agony, “I don’t trust God. How can I trust him when he did nothing to stop the genocide?” And as I sit with that question, I sense the deeper echoes of other pain that is still ever so present, pain that resounds in questions such as, “How can I trust you when I am still infertile? How can I trust you when you did not heal my friend, when you did not prevent my cousin’s death?”
How can I trust a God who would so willingly provide someone with a cell phone just when their phone packed up on them but does nothing to stop so much pain and suffering around the world, such as the horrific genocides that have occurred, and still are occurring?
Through the love of precious friends and loved ones, with the help of them holding me, creating safe spaces for me, and lovingly asking me hard questions, I have been able to voice these hard questions, cry out the despair that at times threatens to drown out the light, and process these last few weeks. I have been able to slowly come to understand that I had been pouring out without taking the time to replenish my spirit, without taking the time to stop AND drink from the well of living water and eat the bread that would satisfy all my hunger.
I was asleep to the fact that I was living the truth of Rilke’s words, a quote that I have shared with so many students in my classes:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
I was blind to the fact that I needed to live these hard questions, to fully live into, and experience, all the emotions that accompanied these questions – the grief, the anger, the fear, the anxiety, the despair – until gradually I would live my way into the answers. And that is what is beginning to happen.
Last week, I spent time catching up with a friend, and after sharing about my experiences in Rwanda, she asked me, “Where is Jesus in all this, Nicole?” I am so grateful to her for asking that question. Immediately after she asked it, it felt like time had slowed dramatically so that I attend to that significant moment. And since then, I have stayed with that question, and it feels like that question is helping me begin to live into the answers I need.
I am realizing that in focusing so much on teaching about God and the Bible, I completely sidelined my spirituality. Because I was living almost completely in my head with my faith, my heart was being silenced to the point where I could not hear it anymore. And so, without realizing it, I moved further and further away from Jesus, further and further away from the living water and the bread of life.
But I am awake now. And I am thirsty and hungry.
At the Casting Crowns concert last night, the group sang their song, “The Well”
Leave it all behind,
Leave it all behind,
Leave it all behind,
Leave it all behind,
I have what you need,
But you keep on searching,
I’ve done all the work,
But you keep on working,
When you’re running on empty,
And you can’t find the remedy,
Just come to the well.
You can spend your whole life,
Chasing what’s missing,
But that empty inside,
It just ain’t gonna listen.
When nothing can satisfy,
And the world leaves you high and dry,
Just come to the well
And all who thirst will thirst no more,
And all who search will find what their souls long for,
The world will try, but it can never fill,
So leave it all behind, and come to the well
So bring me your heart
No matter how broken,
Just come as you are,
When your last prayer is spoken,
Just rest in my arms a while,
You’ll feel the change my child,
When you come to the well…
And now that you’re full,
Of love beyond measure,
Your joy’s gonna flow,
Like a stream in the desert,
Soon all the world will see that living water is found in me,
‘Cos you came to the well
As the words flashed on the side-screens, I realized that I desperately want to be in the place they were singing about… a place where I am full of love and joy, and where what flows from me is an overflowing of the living water that has been pouring into me. So today I choose to stop at the Well-that-is-Jesus and stay awhile.
Here I will stay, and here I will rest, and here I will drink.
Here I will sing with all the need that is in me, Mercy Me’s song,
Hungry, I come to You for I know,
I am empty but I know Your love,
Does not run dry.
So I wait for You,
So I wait for You.
I’m falling on my knees,
Offering all of me,
Jesus, You’re all this heart is living for
Broken I run to You, for Your arms
Are open wide.
I am weary but I know Your touch
Restores my life.
And I will stay here because I acknowledge that I am dry, and I don’t want to be dry anymore.
I will stay here because I confess that I have been arrogant, thinking that I could do life on my own, that the place I am in makes a mockery of my pride.
I will stay here because I no longer want to be in this place.
So, broken, I kneel at this Well, where I will stay and drink until I am thirsty no more, where I will eat until I am hungry no more.
Have you experienced this drought?
How did you recover from it?
Or if you have not yet recovered from the drought, how would you like to move from the place of dryness to a place of being nourished, watered and fed?
(A word of warning: you might find some of the images disturbing, so if you are affected by images, you might not want to read this blog. Also, this post is long, but because both experiences reflect the latter part of my trip in Rwanda, it felt right to share them in one post.)
We walked through the church in silence as our guide explained how 10 000 people were killed. Their clothes were mute testimonies crying out loudly against the injustice that was perpetrated in a place where they had fled for sanctuary.
As we stood in the one section of the church, I quietly cried as she described how the children had been killed, the walls now washed clean of their blood.
Again, as I descended into one side of the grave, I cried as I looked at the bones of adults and children stacked neatly in rows on the shelves.
As I struggled to make sense of what had happened in this place, I though about what I had seen and experienced the previous day.
Just the day before, we visited the genocide museum. The quietness of the museum hinted at the story told there. There were little in the way of images displayed in the museum, a fact for which I was extremely grateful. But the narratives that vividly described the genocide and the events that led up to those terrible 100 days, combined with my overactive, rather vivid imagination, rendered the need for any images unnecessary.
These narratives – these words that created unspeakable worlds in my head – churned up deep pain and grief in my spirit. The narratives rang in my being as we walked through the church, as we stood in the midst of that mass grave.
I am really battling with, and trying to process, the grief and horror that lingers in my being from these two experiences. While I allow these emotions to run their course, I am also reflecting on two profound lessons that I take away from my time in Rwanda:
“How could one human being do that to another?” I agonized.
“How could an entire generation of people inflict such horror on more than a million people?”
How could they do that? This questions rings in my head all the time. And what is the conclusion I reach?
The perpetrators could do what they did, partly because they saw their victims as cockroaches. That was one of the messages that was communicated over and over again in the propaganda-saturated media.
The perpetrators could do what they did because they denied their victim’s humanity. They were able to do what they did because they were not murdering people, they were exterminating vermin. By inflating their sense of humanity, and by denying the humanity of their victims, they could do whatever was deemed necessary to their victims.
The grief was palpable for me as I sat outside the museum. After sitting quietly for a while, two young people approached my group with a request. “Would you share a message of encouragement with the future generation?” I sat and pondered on what I wanted to share with the next generation, and from deep within my spirit came a cry and a protest and a plea.
“You, me, every person is created in God’s image. That gives every human being dignity, making us all human.”
The cry from deep inside my being was a desperate clinging to the imago Dei, to the image of God. I asked myself, “What would have happened if that was never forgotten? How can I inflict horror on someone created in the image of God as I am?”
I believe that being created in the image of God means we are ALL human. Our worth and dignity as human beings are, in my estimation, intrinsically tied to being created in the image of God.
I am created in the image of God. You are created in the image of God. That gives us equal value. It connects us and unites us into a universal family, whether we like it or not.
When I look at you, will I choose to see this imago Dei? When I look at you, will I acknowledge and honour the image of God in you? Will you acknowledge and honour the image of God in me? And if we do acknowledge and honour the imago Dei in each other, what does that mean for how we treat each other, for how we relate to each other?
As I grappled with what I read and saw in Kigali and Nyamata, Rene spoke to me about Jesus’ warning about not calling someone “Fool,” (Matthew 5:22). She explained how easy it is to dehumanise someone by negatively labelling them as an “other”. The sense that I get from the literary context of this verse is that, according to Jesus, being angry with someone, insulting someone and calling someone a fool is equivalent to murder. And in light of what my experiences in Rwanda, and the experiences of those who suffered and died in the genocide, I understand exactly why Jesus said what he did.
As I sat thought about what she said, I realized with horror how many times I have dehumanized others by labeling them as something negative. And then I realized how it is possible for someone to do unspeakable things to another human being. By labelling someone negatively, I deny that they are created in the image of God, and in so doing, strip them of their humanity and their dignity.
It was then that Misheck’s message outside the genocide museum that same day became a message not only to the future generations of Rwanda, but a message to me as well.
“We all have capacity for evil and good. Choose good.”
Yes, the perpetrators of the genocide did terrible things. But I too carry that potential, you carry that potential. They dehumanized their victims, and were therefore capable of, and did inflict, horrors on their fellow Rwandans. I have dehumanized people by labeling them as “other” than me, and denied them their dignity and justice.
It is that scary. It is that easy.
We stood silently in the midst of the mass graves at Nyamata. I looked around, observing how quiet that space was. I struggled with the emotions churning inside me. I struggled to make sense of how such horror could have occurred in a church. I struggled to comprehend the depth of the terror of the people who were buried in that place. And then I looked at our guide who stood in the sun just past the graves.
She wore a bright pink dress, a dress that outlined her beautiful pregnant belly. I walked up to her, gently laid my hand on her swelling tummy, and quietly asked when baby was due. She smiled shyly, and told me baby was coming soon. She grinned as she told me this is her second baby, and proceeded to proudly show me a picture of her older daughter on her cell phone. I smiled with her, in awe of the her resilience in the midst of such pain.
What made the life that she carried even more amazing was that her family is among the dead buried in the mass graves at Nyamata.
As I pondered the enormity of what that it mean for her to tell the story of Nyamata to travellers visiting the memorial, I sensed God saying to me, “Death does not win. The life she is carrying proclaims in this place of death, that death does not have the final word.”
I have been struggling to process the emotions related to these experiences. Just yesterday, a friend lovingly pointed out that I appear to be carrying secondary trauma related to these experiences. Somehow, I am carrying quite a bit of grief for the people of Rwanda, and this grief is fuelling anger towards God.
I cannot make sense of how God could have allowed such horrors to happen. I cannot comprehend why, in spite of his power, mercy and love, God did not prevent it from happening. I am trying to understand what it means that God loves us and yet there is so much pain in this world. It is something I have been grappling with for a long time, and my time in Rwanda has brought it to the fore again.
But as I grapple to make sense of God, …as I struggle to hold the paradox of an infinitely powerful God who loves us deeply and our ability – given to us by him – to choose good or evil, I hold on to the image of this beautiful pregnant woman who stood in the midst of so much death.
I choose to cling to the hope that, even if I don’t understand and might never understand, resurrection will come, that death will NOT have the final say.
Will you pray with me?
Will you pray for East Africa, for the people of Rwanda who are still trying to process their own grief?
Will you help me process by sharing your thoughts about the two lessons and the emotions I am experiencing?
After the festivities, the four friends sat and enjoyed cake in Carrie’s newly designed apartment. Carrie asks Samantha how it was possible that Samantha did not realize how much weight she had gained, and Samantha’s reply was, “I’ve been avoiding mirrors.” At the end of that scene, Carrie narrates, “There we were, the three mirrors Samantha could not avoid.”
As I watched that scene yesterday, another one flashed in my mind. Rene, Misheck, Jim and I sitting on the balcony at the guesthouse, working on the Faith and Life project.
We had just taken a break, and somehow the conversation turned towards my postgraduate studies. At the end of that conversation, I had an institution recommended to me to pursue my postgraduate studies, a scholarship I could apply that could possibly cover some of the expenses, a letter of recommendation as required by the scholarship, and research material. I felt a bit dazed, to say the least. And I also felt terrified.
I thought, “How in the world did that just happen?” But as I asked the question, I already knew the answer. And sitting here, writing this post, three threads from various experiences are being woven together so that, like Carrie and her pals were to Samantha, so Misheck, Jim and Rene were to me – three mirrors that I could not avoid.
Thread #1: Strengthsfinder
I took this test in Idelette’s lounge at her recommendation.We were whiling away the time before leaving for sightseeing, when Idelette suggested I quickly take the test. I raced through the questions, anxious for the final results. But when I got the feedback, I had the strongest reaction to the results. Inside my head, I screamed, “NO!!!”
On the screen were listed the following:
What was that all about? Why was I having such a strong negative reaction? As days went by, I continually recalled that day and my reaction, wondering what was going on in my head and heart. Until now… As I read through the reports generated by the test, I smiled because I realized exactly what my reaction indicated… I did not want to own that space. I did not think I was enough. And looking into this mirror made it hard to hold on to the lie… made it hard to stay in the shadows.
Thread #2: The lie I bought into
Unbeknownst to me, I was carrying residual and unresolved emotions from my experience as a member of a panel that facilitated the final plenary session of that Gathering. These emotions started surfacing as Rene, Jim and I sat on the balcony, chatting about what our expectations for our time together in Kigali.
I hadn’t really given it much thought, but when it was my turn to share, I had one emphatic request – I did not want to get to Amahoro unprepared. If they wanted me to participate in the presentation, then it had to be well prepared. Rene then casually remarked, ‘Ooo. There seems to be some unresolved stuff from last year.’ I brushed her words aside, denying that that was the case.
The next morning, after a good working session, we had the outline and most of the content for our presentation. We then began to assign tasks to each of our group, and Misheck was requested to facilitate the input session because he was male, educated and an African. As Rene explained why Misheck would be the best to present this section, fear, anxiety, anger and a deep sadness started rising within me, and I knew that Rene’s words of the previous evening were true. I could no longer deny that there were unresolved issues from last year’s presentation.
After lunch, I sat and shared this realization with Rene. She shared her thoughts about how the plenary session has unfolded and the events leading up to that presentation that contributed to the outcome, and then she levelled me with the next words. She looked at me and said (I am paraphrasing), “Nicole, you have to take responsibility for your role in how you are feeling. The experience of last year culminated in a lie about yourself that you chose to believe. I’m not expecting you to tell me what it is, but I do want you to realize that believing that lie is a sin, and you need to confess that sin and let it go.”
As the tears rolled down my face, I looked into my friend’s face, and there I saw a mirror I could not avoid. I knew what that lie was. I chose to believe that I messed up because I was unprepared, and more than that, that I was not enough. And because I believed that lie, I did not want to be part of a presentation and stand up in Goma in front of those who had been there last year.
But as Rene gently encouraged me, I realized that I cannot let the lie win, and so I reluctantly agreed to be part of the presentation, and to facilitate an aspect of the afternoon track.
Thread #3: The gift I denied
It felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. As Rene, Misheck, Jim and I worked, I found myself watching myself. I observed the questions that were running through my head, and those coming out of my mouth. I reflected on the thoughts that were coming to mind, and the details that I was hungry to record and the deadlines and tasks I was hungry to nail down.
As I watched myself, another memory surfaced, this one from quite a while back. In my early twenties, I attended a gifts and ministry workshop at my church, and I remembered the list of gifts applicable to me as a result of the questionnaire I had completed. The gifts of teaching and hospitality did not surprise me, but the third one did… administration.
Who wants to be known as an administrator? Can there be any more boring, unglamorous “gift”?
At the time I did not think of that gift as such; I completely rejected it, and whenever any administration role came up, I refused to consider it.
But as I watched myself that day in Kigali, I realized that I could no longer deny that gift. It came as natural to me as breathing. All the questions, my attention to and demand for details, and being adamant about assigning deadlines all pointed to the gift I had denied for so long.
In believing the lie that I am not enough, in consistently questioning my worth and value, in second guessing myself, I avoided all mirrors that called the lie into question. But as I sat on that balcony in Kigali, as Rene, Misheck and Jim consistently engaged me, they became the three mirrors I could no longer avoid.
Siki Dlanga, in her anthology entitled “Word of Worth”, writes,
Out of these words that confine me
Out f this lie that had bound me
Away from this torment
I am coming out
I walk into the light
I shall confess the truth
I am going into the sun
Where I will dance in the rain
I will sing aloud
I will ride the rainbow
I will say
This is my freedom day
I will watch the stars
Shine their light on me
Confirming ancient wisdom
Winking at me
For believing in the truth
Against the odds.
I choose to come out into the light today.
I choose to accept what I saw in those mirrors.
I choose to no longer believe the lie. I choose to step fully into who I am.
I choose to accept my strengths of:
I choose to embrace my gifts of teaching, hospitality and administration.
I choose to embrace my vocation as an academic/reflective practitioner (thanks for this title Jim).
I choose to accept and fully live into the truth that…
I AM ENOUGH
Will you join me in this quest? I’d love to hear from you.
Which mirrors are you avoiding?
Which truths about yourself have you been denying, but now need to embrace to fully live?
My chosen reading material for my wait at Seattle Tacoma International Airport was Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert’s “The Enneagram”. Having retaken the Enneagram test while staying with Idelette, and finding myself having impromptu conversations about it while staying with a friend in Portland (Leigh, you were not far from my thoughts when I had these conversations, *grin*), I found myself curious to read, and reflect again, on my type.
As I began the chapter on my type – type 2 – I was surprised by how apprehensive I felt about reading my type. Since learning about the Enneagram about five years ago, I have often spoken about how it has helped me become healthier, and especially how it’s helped me navigate interpersonal spaces in healthier ways. But somehow I had forgotten how painful it can be to have a mirror held up to you and show you your shadow side in all its glory.
As I read the chapter, I started to remember, started to feel and started to see, and with the remembering, feeling and seeing came the re-awakening. You see, two’s need to be needed. And in order to fulfil that need, I become very helpful. When you tell me you need me, when you tell me you depend on me, when you praise me for being so helpful, you feed my need, and I feel happy.
But the downside – the shadow side – of my type is that twos become too helpful; we become so busy with helping others that we bury our needs, and sometimes we even forget that we have needs. This leads to pride, where we then look down on others because they have needs, and we erroneously think that we do not have any. Just writing this flushes my face with shame, but I need to hold this mirror up and have the courage to look at what is being reflected back to me. I need to do so because when I see my true reflection, only then can I truly begin to heal. When I live in the shadow side of my type, my boundaries become too porous; I overextend myself with helping others and in the process, I get lost.
As I continued to read the chapter, I found myself evaluating where I am, wondering why I have been feeling so discontented with this year when I have so much to be thankful for.
I began to see how saying “yes” to certain things and to certain people – because I wanted to be as helpful as I can – meant that I was saying “no” to myself and my needs.
The extent to which I chose to be helpful has meant that I have not able to meet my own needs that I had identified at the start of this year. Once again, I was not able to help myself in my attempts to help others.
But this past Sunday I woke up feeling sad, and I realized that I could no longer deny the undercurrents of emotions. I decided to that I needed to go to my happy place – Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens – with Francesco.
And there, under the gaze of my beloved mountain, surrounded by God and the beauty of His Creation in one of His cathedrals, I chose to confront the reality of my choices for this year. Francesco helped me process by asking me questions that invited me to be honest about what I needed. I began to reflect on what I had been saying “yes” to, and how that resulted in me saying “no” to my dreams – and my needs – for this year.
Since then, I have not slept well because I started to choose strengthen my boundaries. Strengthening my boundaries includes saying “no” to others so that there is space for me to say “yes” to me. And this is a painful process for me, because saying no to others means that I will no longer be the go-to person. I will no longer be indispensable. I will no longer be needed. And that scares the heck out of me.
And then Francesco completely threw me a curveball. While chatting through my concerns of disappointing people, of worrying that my choices would be selfish, he asked me if my helpful nature could not be in service of me. That stopped me in mid thought. What? Be helpful to myself? Be needed by myself? It sounded too strange; I had never thought about it that way. But the more I thought, the more I sensed a glimmer of something really significant.
Why can’t my helpful nature be in service of me?
Why can’t I be needed by myself?
In bible study on Wednesday evening, we reflected on Luke 10:25-28. 25,
“On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘What is written in the Law?’ he [Jesus] replied. ‘How do you read it?’ He [the expert] answered: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied. ‘Do this and you will live.’”
We reflected on what it means to love one’s self. The law expert that wanted to trap Jesus said that we must love the Lord our God with all our being AND love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Jesus’ reply was that when we do this we will live. Again it felt like time had stopped because of something significant.
We will live.
And living – to me – is not only about surviving; it is about flourishing.
It was as if I had read this passage for the first time. Slowly, it dawned on me that if I love myself – if I am attentive to my needs – I will live. If I love myself, I will flourish. I realized that saying “yes” to my needs is not being selfish; by saying “yes” to my needs, I love myself.
Strengthening my boundaries – saying “no” to some – so that my helpful nature is not at the expense of my well-being, is not being selfish. It is about acknowledging what I need. It is about learning to recognize my capacity in the moment and to make choices based on that capacity and not on my need to be needed. It is about recognizing what I need and loving myself enough to attend to my needs.
I am learning that when I attend to my needs, when I love myself well, I will be able to help others without them needing to need me because I have already fulfilled the need to be needed for myself.
And when I love myself well, then I will love God and neighbour well, without strings attached. When I love myself well, I will not only live… I will flourish.
So I have a couple of questions for you, and I would love to hear your thoughts…
What do you think it means to love yourself?
What do you need to say “no” to in order to say “yes” to what you need?
“My journaling experience has been like watching dirty laundry being stuffed into a washing machine and clean laundry come out.
On February 9th this year I poured my emotions into 18 pages of what was supposed to be my travel journal.
You know that feeling where you feel sick to your stomach and once you vomit, you experience instantaneous relief?
That was my experience—a sort of retching, vomiting episode…”
Come and read the rest of this blog, where it first appeared as a guest post for Claire De Boer at her blog http://thegiftofwriting.com/. Thank you, Claire, for being patient with me, and for editing my writing so that it is a little more coherent 😉