A Note about Fixing Holes and Not Being Okay

It’s been really cool to see the responses to my testimony and tattoo. There are lots of us recovering elder-brother-types out there, I guess. =)

There was one series of comments that particularly struck me:

Facebook shame books comments

I thought this was particularly ironic — as did my co-conversationalist — because in talking about shame and shininess and how I (we) struggle with striving to measure up to legalistic standards of perfection we can’t attain, our go-to solution — and one I endorsed, too, I don’t at all mean to dump this on the other person — was to read two books that One Should Read To Better Oneself. Because what “worked” for me is totally a “rule” that will “work” for everyone else. And because this whole thing is totally “fixable” — right?

The problem with us elder-brother-ish rule-followers is that we think we can just find a 3-step process and make everything better. (Or at least make everything LOOK better.) But figuring out all of this shame and older brother stuff is not about fixing yourself. The fact is, we are broken and we can’t fix ourselves. It just isn’t possible. We cannot attain perfection. Our shiny whitewash can only hide the holes, not repair them.

What this process of dealing with legalism is really about is the continuing, ongoing, neverending struggle to realize and admit and embrace our brokenness. It’s not our job to fill in the hole. It’s our job to stop covering the hole that we can never fill. 

This is a hard thing to do when your life has been about presenting the appearance of a completely intact wall. We can even begin to be legalistic about not doing a good enough job of uncovering the whole. We just switch our legalism and shininess to the new goal of shinily uncovering our faults. And then we beat ourselves up for not being vulnerable enough or not being fixed enough or not healing fast enough.

Let me be clear: We will never “achieve” vulnerability. We will never “achieve” freedom from shame. We will never “achieve” honesty, or healing, or peace. (Short of some sort of Jesus-miracle, anyway.) These are not check-boxes; they are STRUGGLES. They are BATTLES, some days. And some days, they are mountains to be climbed, but off in the distance — later — not today.

It’s good to stop covering up the holes — that’s an important shift to make — but it’s also good to just rest sometimes. It’s good to stop striving for a new standard of “perfect brokenness”.

Or, as a really great blog post put it, “IT’S OKAY TO NOT BE OKAY.”

Or, as Daniel and I tell each other when we’re struggling to be “productive” self-employed workers, “I love you even when you derp.” (aka don’t get anything productive done all day) “I would love you even if all you ever did was derp.”

The shift I keep trying to practice in my brain is that nothing I do can change my value. Just like nothing I can do can change how long it takes sunlight to reach the earth. God made it that way and it’s stuck. If I went out and murdered a bunch of people (NOT GOING TO HAPPEN, by the way), God would still love and value me the same. If I went out and cured all the world’s suffering (also not going to happen, but less terrifying), God would still love and value me the same.

So when I feel like I should be better at this vulnerability thing, or when I feel like I should have figured out how to balance marriage time and work time by now, or even when I slip back into old habits that I feel are so “elementary” I shouldn’t have to deal with them anymore, here’s what I do: (And feel free to say it with me, if you think this one blog post means I have my poop in a group!)

  1. Stop that. All lies.
  2. Have grace for yourself — don’t feel bad.
  3. Now that you feel bad for feeling bad, give yourself grace for that too.
  4. Say it with me: “It’s okay to not be okay. God loves me even when I derp.”
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Why I’m Getting a Tattoo (My Testimony)

I’m getting a tattoo.

You might find that kind of surprising. So here’s the story of why.

I’m kind of a goody-two-shoes. I’ve been that way for a long time. I’ve always liked pleasing people, as far as I can remember. I always got good grades. I always toed the line (outwardly, anyway). I always avoided conflict. I always achieved. I always followed the rules. I liked following the rules. They told me what I had to do to look shiny, and my shininess was my trophy and my shield.

But on the inside, I didn’t follow the spirit of the rules. Often I pleased people or avoided conflict out of fear. I got good grades because I liked getting everything right and feared the shame of making mistakes. I had perfect church attendance, but it wasn’t motivated by devotion, and it became fuel for me to look down on those whose attendance was less spotless. I played with my younger sister the exact number of minutes I was required to, and then I tricked and bullied her until she went away (or got left behind). I didn’t often directly lie to authorities — too confrontational, too risky, too black-and-white — but I deceived. I twisted and finagled my words and my thoughts and my world to protect my secret selfishness. I sneakily read books with flashlights after bedtime, late into the night sometimes. I learned my memory work then, too, having watched TV before my homework was done (despite a house policy to the contrary), because — I told myself — the real deadline was making sure I had it done in time for school in the morning. I hated when my little sister copied me, and especially when we wore matching outfits, so I would come out wearing one outfit, make sure I was seen, and then go quick-change into something else, only to emerge when it was time to go and there wasn’t time for my sister to change. I did what I wanted, which was a combination of what I wanted to do and just enough of what I didn’t want to do to keep everyone else happy and off my back.

I didn’t technically disobey often, but I wasn’t really obedient either. I was an expert at non-disobedience.

I didn’t really start to come to terms with all of this until I heard a sermon preached about the book The Prodigal God, which reframes the parable of the prodigal son (the author renames it the “Parable of Two Lost Sons”) as a tale about two types of lost-ness: the obvious, rebellious lost-ness of the prodigal son, and the subtle, sneaky, self-righteous lost-ness of the elder brother. I recognized myself immediately. I knew I had to read that book.

…But I didn’t. Life happened, my list of books to read was long, and it slipped through the cracks.

Then, as part of a reading group, I read the book Tired of Trying to Measure Up. I didn’t really identify with the title much — after all, I always could measure up to people’s expectations, for the most part — but I heard it was a powerful read, so I dug in.

I was totally blown away. I FINALLY UNDERSTOOD why I felt so anxious about making a misstep, and why I was so deadline-driven, and why I never really felt like I needed God, and why finding myself self-employed (with no one to please or perform for) was so darn difficult. I was stuck in a cycle of trying to justify myself, and it was motivated by trying to avoid shame — trying to prove my worth with my own two hands.

Looking back, I think the truth of this idea softened my shell just a hair. The armor cracked just enough.

I don’t even remember all what I read that struck me — looking through the book again, I can’t really find anything terribly quotable. But I do remember the part where I read the list of God’s names:

During biblical times, a person’s name was really important. People gave their babies names that described the characteristics they wanted them to have when they grew up. A name wasn’t just a label; it was a description of the nature or character of the one to whom it belonged. Look at some of God’s names:

Elohim, the Strong One;
El-roi, the Strong One who sees;
Jehovah-jireh, He is our Provider;
Jehovah-raffa, He is our Healer;
Jehovah-nissi, He is our Banner;
Jehovah-ra’ah, He is our Shepherd;
Jehovah-shalom, He is our Peace;
Jehovah-tsidkenu, He is our Righteousness;
Jehovah-shammah, He is Present.

All of a sudden I got it. I GOT IT. All those years of knowing about the Bible, of being smart, of giving the right answers to avoid pain, of hiding and sneaking and pleasing and deceiving — and only now, at the age of 26, did I get it. All the work I do to be shiny doesn’t matter. My own name doesn’t matter. The name on me is God’s. It doesn’t matter if I’m shiny. In fact, working to be shiny is counter-productive, because the facade of shine distracts me from reality. My “righteous” deeds were really filthy rags. Rather than fixing the hole in the wall, I had spent my whole life trying to cover it up. I was a whitewashed tomb.

I finally just read The Prodigal God last week. It’s a short book, so it didn’t take long. But the whole way through, I just kept thinking, “Yep, that’s me. This is me. This is what I’m fighting.” The transition from that place to my tattoo action step is well-illustrated by this passage:

Why doesn’t the elder brother go in [to the Father’s feast]? He himself gives the reason: ‘Because I’ve never disobeyed you.’ The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.

So I’m getting this tattoo to remind me that I’m not shiny. I can’t be perfect. I can’t earn my way into the big feast in the sky by following all the rules. And not only that — but I need to stop whitewashing my tomb.

This tattoo is risky. It’s (somewhat) counter-cultural. It’s visible. To make sure I can please everyone and keep my “future life options” open, I should remain clean and unblemished. Or at least put it somewhere more discreet, where no one will see it. I shouldn’t get this tattoo.

So I am.

My tattoo will read “YHWH shammah” (in my handwriting), which is Hebrew for “The Lord is There” or “The Lord is Present”. (Found in Ezekiel 45. You’ll also notice it’s at the end of the list quoted above.) And when I look at it, it will remind me that it is physically impossible for me to be without blemish. But the Lord is there. Or, to summarize with a secular quote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” (Leonard Cohen)

This is my reminder that I’m cracked. It reminds me to stop plastering over the hole and just let the Light in.

——————-

UPDATE: It is finished. Here’s a picture of my tattoo!

tattoo YHWH shammah