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Owning the Ugly in Our Stories

10:48 AMHeather

16,794 days.

That's how many days I've been on this earth.

Which is to say, I'm 46 years old and four days.

I have made a very conscious decision to not lie about my age. I've made a pact with myself to always be truthful about exactly how old I am, owning every day of it.

I come at this from a rather skewed perspective, I know. That happens when you lose a parent at an early age. Or at least for me. It has bred some deep reflections and perspectives on how I parent, how I live, how I document our stories ad nauseum, and why I even write out letters to my kids regularly. Because I have exactly ONE letter in my father's handwriting. Just one. 

So, the ripple effects continue, all these years later. At times, I feel silly and ridiculous, as if I'm not moving on and as if I shouldn't still be wrestling with grief. I tell myself I must have done this grieving thing all wrong to still feel the void on some days to the point of tears.

But, the truth is that the crater left by that early loss and all it's powerful ripple effects is just part of who I am. It's part of my story. It's the place where God showed up when my world fell apart. And it's where my roots of faith began to grow deep, in that dark place of my late teens and early 20's. I remind myself it's not living in the past to rehearse the ways that God has been faithful through past trials. It's relevant today because the branches and fruit are still growing from those roots. And that matters. It matters a great deal.

Yes, regular readers. Here we go again with more lessons learned from grief.

What I've been through in my life has made me decide that I won't lie about my age, even when I'm tempted to do so. Because I want to see and honor the value in every day that I've lived. Even the hard ones. Even the ones I'd much rather forget and wish had never happened in the first place.

I press myself and challenge my doubts by attempting to own every day of failure, hardship, wounding, regret, sorrow, and joy.

 Image courtesy of Unsplash

The truth is that many of my days I wish had never happened. Especially the painful ones, where wounds were inflicted, even unknowingly. Where loss overcame me. When I've felt betrayed or abandoned or uninvited.

Yes, it would be easier to discount them and forget them and wipe them away. It is, after all, incredibly uncomfortable to dwell with the memories of my own mistakes or the hardships of life. It would be much easier to pretend they hadn't happened.

But I tell myself no. Don't. Don't do that.

Do the harder thing. Count every one. So that every one might count. 

I try to glean and search through the rubble of my past days in order to find the redeeming value even there, in those days I'd like to wish away. 

I tell myself, and even force myself at times, to stop and look with a lingering eye on the wreckage I'd like to ignore. Not because it's easy, but because its necessary.

You see, I have to choose to own the ugly parts of my story. So that they don't own me. So that I never discount how God is present in every last bit of it.

When I read in the Old Testament how those who grieved sat in sackcloth and ashes, it grabs my attention. This does not sound like a comfortable process. Yet, something about that tradition feels comforting to me. 

Maybe it's because there was a set ritual -- a common practice to acknowledge the pain. An outward tradition to process the inner feelings. 

Or maybe it's because I see strength there. I see a strength in a culture that says, "Hey. It's acceptable and in fact, encouraged, for you to sit uncomfortably in the hard. You don't have to pretend the pain isn't real or isn't happening. You have permission to just sit in it. Not run from it, or feel a pressure to put on a happy face. But just sit with it for now." 

And my word, how I feel envious of the stories where others came and sat in it with the grieving. That resonates with me. Obviously, feasting in fine linen would be preferable. But for a friend or loved one to choose to come sit in sackcloth and ashes with you? 

Is there any greater compassion? That is a picture of the verse in 1 Corinthians 12:25-26, "Its [the body of Christ] parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it."

Suffering together. Acknowledging the painful, the hard, the difficult. Refusing to pretend it didn't happen. Refusing to pretend period.

Isn't that a bit of a lost art among us? We paint on smiles and pose our meals and our plates and our clothes and our everyday moments so that they are appealing and so that people will approve us with likes and followers and retweets and accolades and self-glory?

It's a pit that is growing, and as it swallows us within it, it also swallows the incredible value found in the hard parts of life.

It sanitizes the not-so-easy. It ignores the very things, the very weaknesses, where God's strength shows off best.

When we remove any hint of suffering, we are denying the very ground where the glory of God himself is most obvious. In the everyday battles. In the all consuming sorrow. In the very ugly and far-from-pretty reality of things like mental illness and physical pain and relationship struggles.

When we sweep those under the rug and try to sit on the huge lump in the carpet, as if it isn't there, we are actually cutting off opportunity for ourselves and for others to see and acknowledge how God moves in the wilderness. 

Because he does. He marches through our wastelands and moves to refresh us.

 When you went out before your people, O God, when you marched through the wasteland, the earth shook, the heavens poured down rain, before God, the One of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel. You gave abundant showers, O God; you refreshed your weary inheritance.
(Psalm 68:7-9, NIV)

When we refuse to acknowledge or discuss or share the ugly parts of our stories -- the wastelands -- we are actually denying the opportunity for the body of Christ to function as it was meant to function. That is to suffer together, to endure hardship together, to sit in the sackcloth and ashes together as we look with expectation for God to move among us.

Those are actually the truest moments in life. The most authentic and genuine days are the gritty days when we grieve forward, press forward, wrestle forward. 

They are the moments when the Potter is molding the clay and our faith is being refined. Those are the moments when our God is hands-on, transforming us through the brutal into something beautiful, for the eternal and everlasting glory of him alone.

Instead of glossing over these dark moments, trying to hide them, deny them, ignore them -- what if we just owned them? 

Which is what I'm doing here today. I'm just going to say it outright. I'm knee deep in a very dark and hard season right now. I'm battling loneliness and wrestling with weariness. I know I'm called to live in community, but I've found community to be painful and hard. And it leaves me feeling very guarded and on high alert, ready to retreat. 

I'm tired. From a long season of waiting and praying and hoping and asking. From the up-and-down journey of mothering, and needing to relearn it all as my children are becoming adults and independent. From questioning my own legacy and wondering what impact I'm making. Then feeling the weight of the conviction that it's not about me at all. 

So how am I making more of God? How am I representing him through how I live my faith? Because the culture is telling me to present myself in such a way that people think, "Oh, I wanna be that girl!"

But this isn't my home. This world is supposed to feel ill-fitting and frustrating. I'm supposed to be all about living in such a way that people instead think, "I wanna know that God! I wanna know that hope!"

Yet, I wrestle all the live-long day with messages about building a platform and an audience as a writer. I live with far more social media [counterfeit] connection than I do with actual connection. I sit and look at Facebook far more than I sit face-to-face with people. 

Over and over again, I'm tempted to deny the ugly parts of the story and let only the pretty show. I fight against the thing within me that says ignore the hard, disown the sad, pretend the ugly isn't there.

Yet it's the scars that make us.

It's the scars that point to a remarkable story of survival. It's the scars that make our stories something from which others can borrow hope, when theirs is gone. 

To deny the scars is to deny the work of God in our lives.

After all, is he not the Father who healed us all through the scars of his son? 

His glorious plan of redemption was built firmly upon the scars, upon the ugly part of a story, upon the hardest thing Jesus ever did.

So, what if we owned our own ugly, hard, difficult days and embrace them -- in fact, celebrate them -- as the canvas for God's greatest masterpieces?

That we could. That we would. And let his light shine through the holes in our lives.

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