Have you forgotten why we gather today in our sanctuaries, auditoriums, strip malls, college campuses, in homes, or satellite campuses? Sometimes I wonder if we’ve gotten in the habit of gathering to meet with friends, or have an hour with your spouse kid-free, or have a place to dress up, or dress down, because maybe it gets you up and out of bed, or it’s a place to grab some free coffee, or get to sing in a place that doesn’t require you to have skill, or think about the Bible in a way that’s focused and intellectual, or a place to pray quietly about that thing that’s been hindering you, or maybe it’s a place to have some quiet for the first time all weekend. Or maybe, to be blunt, we go because we feel it’s our obligation as a Christian. Is it because your church balks at the ‘norm’ and does things differently? Is it because it is the family you never had? Is it because you can escape your problems and just be for an hour or two? Is it because it’s a simple and predictable time when you live in chaos?
Think long and hard: What do you love about it and what do you wish were different? Is it your best use of time or could it be better spent? Do you love church? Why do you love church and if you don’t, then why are you going?
I have sat in far too many churches that have tried to woo me with their music, atmosphere, expository teaching, activity based community groups, men and women’s luncheons, open forums, and promises that it is not like the others. Most people my age are not in church and have no plans to return. To be honest, I was a little worn out myself in college, struggling to find an answer as to why I should go when I was involved in Bible studies on campus and serving my community through campus ministries. But all those ministries would say, “we aren’t the church, you need to be in the church” and so when I went, and I sat alone and the pastor spent weeks preaching on raising children, I was confused why God commanded that I be there. How the heck did this fit my context? And why was the church so adamant about young adults needing to be fostered in the church, yet when one was there, no one had the guts or will to step out of their Sunday service routine to let me know they were ‘glad’ I was there.
Routine. How many of us go to church because it is a part of the routine?
We are dying off in the west, it cannot be ignored anymore, nor can it afford to be attractional. Don’t be mistaken, God is building His church but He is also trimming away the fluff and yet we are scrambling to keep our multi-site locations and budget for conference decorations, and figuring out ways to make people want to come to us. Stop it. Our culture will never return to the thought that it is bettered when they engage in Christianity, or any faith for that matter. The church has and always will be “painfully uncool” as so poetically described by Switchfoot. Stop trying to make church a glamorous part of your life. Your community sees straight through you. You can no better love your neighbor than your neighbor can just because you’re reminded to do so once a week. The world does not need our church services. It needs God. We need God.
Church, do you recognize your need for God? Do you realize we gather every week to fall on our faces in desperation for His grace and guidance as we struggle to live as Christ exemplified for us? Does your soul crave to take the Lord’s supper to be reminded together how utterly helpless we are without His spirit and power in our lives? Are we going to church to worship Him in our conversations, in our greetings, in our songs, over our meals, and in our acts of service? Are you sacrificing your will to His each time we meet? Are we gathering together has a haven from a week full of sharing the Gospel and humbling ourselves to whatever the Lord impresses upon us to do in our work settings, family situations, and chance encounters throughout the week? Do we scramble to come together so that we can be painfully uncool and worship unashamed to the One our soul is desperate for?
If not, do you love Him enough to be real with Him one-on-one instead of hiding from him at a church service, sitting between your two pals or by your spouse? Do you come to church in the hopes of having a nice relationship with God in the comfort of your routine and the assumption that He will not ask anything too radical of you? If so, you are damaging our beautiful community, a community that needs to be a beacon of brokenness, redemption, and reconciliation of both God and his people. Can we stop being a social club and start waving our freak flag a little higher? Can we cut back on programming and step out to be one that explains who God is to our coworkers and friends and stop leaning on our church services to do that? Really. Let’s worship together because we NEED Him and each other as we struggle through life. And if you are a part of a church that tells you that God desires that you not struggle, or that He will make you healthy and wealthy, stop going there. That is a false Gospel and Christ never taught that.
I’m sorry that I’m flustered and frustrated. Two of my friends who are not Christians have expressed an interest in understanding the teachings of Christ and attending an evangelical church. So we went together for the first time. In short, This morning was a total abomination. My new friends leaned over and whispered,”So it’s kind of like a social hang out?” and then later, “How come no one is singing?”, and the worst, “When will the pastor start talking about God?”
I could have shed tears I was so frustrated. We slipped out early so we could have a little debrief after, most of which I spent explaining what we had just sat through was not God’s design for his church. You guys, there ARE young people who are conflicted, struggling, questioning, and curious about faith, but they don’t know anyone or any church who is open enough to reach out and walk with them through it. It is a human thing to not wish to be stereotyped or to crave authenticity. So let’s stop imitating the world and start worshipping the Lord whole heartedly in our gatherings and in our actions throughout the week; anything less makes God look cheap. And yet, he is worthy of all our affections and our worship.
O come, let us adore Him!
Ps: I love you. I really do. I promise I’m not throwing the towel in.
Being a photographer over the last six years has allowed me to meet and interact with people in a way I never would. Most of the time I’m the first person to smile and hug a bride and groom after they’re married and congratulate them, I’m the one who gets to witness the raw emotion of a couple’s first look before they are married. Sometimes I’m one of the first to hold a newborn, or laugh with a nine month pregnant woman as we try to get her in a comfortable pose. Sometimes newborns pee on me, sometimes they give me that smile their momma’s been dying to see for weeks. Sometimes I see senior boys roll their eyes at their mom but then carry her purse and props unprompted back to the car. Sometimes I see girls anxious to be beautiful in a way they already are and are totally unaware of. Sometimes I see dad’s nervous to interact with their grown daughters, and are encouraged by a reassuring squeeze or giggle. Sometimes when I’m shooting public events, a stranger grants my request for their image by shrinking themselves in discomfort, jumping into my space, or flipping me off. Sometimes I get yelled at. Sometimes I just stop what I’m doing and crack up with a total stranger. Sometimes I’ll hear him whisper to her “if you don’t loosen up and smile, I’m going to grab your butt in front of her.” Oh the laughter. I laugh so much with these people who are like weird, distant relatives, who were once strangers. I remember the first time I reached out to two strangers -a brother and sister- at a motorcycle festival and asked for their picture. I was so nervous I was sure I’d puke. They could tell I was shy and set me at ease immediately and began asking about my work and how they should pose for me. In hindsight after several years of doing this, they were the perfect subjects. No one’s ever obliged me in that way since. I’ve been scared, joyful, overwhelmed, excited, disappointed, uncomfortable, but I’ve never really been sad or torn. Most of the time people want to remember the good moments and so most of my experience in photography have been happy mile markers: Weddings, graduation, community festivals, concerts, job promotions or book deals, engagements, births.
So when I took pictures of a foster baby with her birth mom for fifteen minutes of their allotted hour during their weekly meetings, that changed for me. I witnessed the joy of unification and apparent brokenness. I saw love trying. I saw addiction burrowing in. I saw kisses and snuggles. I saw relational gaps that will take much time to heal. I saw hope and despair. It’s weird to just be the recorder sometimes. Sometimes I wish I was the fixer -the case worker, or the support group, or part of the solution. But in that moment, my part is to play is the rememberer. Sometimes it’s a heavy thing to have images burned in your brain like witnessing a beautiful woman struggling between her love for her daughter being pulled apart by her addiction.
I hope these images can do more than be a nice picture for this sweet baby that I’m totally nuts about and her birth mother. I hope they can draw them together, piece together a story that’s had a broken start, and remind her that she has a daughter that is worth fighting herself for. I hope.
Would you pray for this family, for this baby’s foster family, or for the foster family you might know? It’s hard to not take sides, it’s hard to love people wholly and it’s hard to let things change. It’s hard to love. The foster community is in a war for restoration. There are little hearts all over tonight that need peace. Would you pray with me for peace in our foster care community?
This season in my life has been really taxing on my heart. There are some days as soon as I’m conscious enough to turn off my alarm, this immediate sadness seeps deep into my bones. While we’re resilient creatures hardwired for struggle, I’m not exempt from that small corner of my heart, that if I slow my life down enough, it feels like I can’t get enough oxygen to it. It’s hard to accept that you’ll never always be perfectly happy and that all your relationships, however wonderful, are still pretty broken. One of the oldest stories told goes like this: the Creator dwelled on earth with all the beasts of the earth and sky, among beautiful, untainted nature and he was pleased. But it pleased him even more to draw out from dust Adam, and from Adam’s rib, Eve. And the Creator loved them above all his other works. He lived with them and gave them responsibility over the land. The Creator who could choose to dwell among the galaxies, among his angels, in the depths of the sea, or seated in the grandest of palaces, desired to walk in the cool of the evening among his creation. Mankind lacked nothing. And yet Eve doubted, when she was alone with the serpent, that the Creator withheld a single good thing from her. In that moment, the world became broken.
This story is as old as time and as a kid that grew up hearing this story before I could even comprehend it’s meanings for my humanness and the necessity for redemption, it’s still easy to allow this story become a fanciful child’s introductory to God. As a highly educated society, this story gets put on the back burner because maybe we believe faith and science cannot intersect or maybe we do but are too nervous to explore. I don’t know how exactly it all shook out, but reading this book several times over the last couple of weeks, one thing that stands out as particularly true in my life is this: When Eve began to doubt that the Creator withheld a good thing from her, she chose sin to try to prove him a liar, and instead her whole existence became broken beyond self-repair and her life was just a shadow of what once was. Oh, how I see this pattern in my life! And it hurts to realize that I see my choices are no different from Eve’s. My greatest struggle in my humanness is that I believe deeply that I know what is best for me better than my Creator. And that when He asks me to cease striving, planning, fixing, dreaming, that I dig my heels deep in the ground below and keep him at arm’s length, expecting harsh words and terrible fallout. And yet, as I see through the fabric of His story, all He is waiting for in the perfection of his time, it to hold me tightly, binding up all my sadness and pain and we will be taken up to be with Him while he restores Earth. It’s always been his plan for us to return together, to work among a perfected land with our hands, all of my relationships restored to a common desire to walk again with God in the cool of the evening, laughing because there’s no reason not to, and worshipping a Creator who has and always will desire to be in close proximity with his children.
In the wake of all the persecution and executions of so many Christians in northern Syria, it serves to remind me of the magnitude of suffering millions of Christians withstand worldwide to give me perspective on struggle. I’m baffled and yet grateful for the promise of Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, or that Christ bids us to follow him, to come and die. Everything in the Creator’s kingdom is upside-down as it seeks to reconcile God to man. And yet, even in the midst of others’ extreme suffering, the Lord cares and is working out the detail in my struggle! So when my white, middle class culture around me says that if I just got that better job or simplified my life or invest in my community, and I do and it’s good, safe, and yet unsatisfying, I have to remember that sometimes obeying God means he leads us into unemployment, or relational chaos, or seasons of solitude, and yet, if He is there, where else have we to go but to Him? Sometimes he calls us like Peter in John 21 “Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to Peter, “Follow me!” and Peter did! I am beginning to grasp that when He leads you where you do not wish to go, that is where healing takes place and my communion with him is sweetest –rawest, but sweetest. And when I let go of my desires, my flesh, the things I was never promised, I stand in solidarity with those who would lose their lives for the sake of the Gospel in oppressed countries and bear witness that their love is not misplaced, that their hope is indeed “built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” When we become the woman in Hosea 2 that Christ allures, leads into the wilderness and speaks tenderly to, He makes our valley a door of hope. Oh, that our church would let go of the notions that we will get it right this side of heaven, that suffering should not be a part of our lives, and that our spiritual dispositions be sterile and self-righteous! I pray that we would wake up every day willing to go where we do not wish to, that our affections be only for the Creator and that our trust be so sure that rain or shine, blessing or hardship, weak or strong, satisfied or in need, in oppressed third world countries or suburbia USA, we can lay our heads down every night and say “Hallelujah, our God reigns!”
So when I wake up in the morning, unable to reach for the thing the Creator has taken from me, I choose to remember that I have “God in my soul and Christ in my flesh” and commune with One my humanness tries to suffocate in the expanses of my soul. Last night I sat on a worn dorm couch with three women of varying ages, education, backgrounds, and paths to faith in Christ, my heart was so heavy I didn’t even want to show up. I didn’t want to talk about Genesis because it would remind me why my day was horrible –that I am sinful and that my world is not is as it should. Instead I was reminded over and over that God is working all things to be reunited with us, that He desires our closeness as much as I desire His, and that which He has taken from me does not prove Him to be a liar, but rather that His thoughts are not my thoughts nor His ways my ways. My friend Tamika, a married woman of two adorable kids, confessed to the girls at Lincoln yesterday, “I’m more aware at thirty-three than I was in my twenties of God’s presence in my life. And when I don’t feel his presence I choose to, otherwise I will succumb to loneliness.”
The Creator withholds no good thing from his children. My flesh bites back at this but in the quiet, in the tears, the Spirit replies, “my grace is enough for you–my power is perfected in weakness”. May we all choose to trust in His presence and work in our lives, even when our flesh rises up and squelches the truths we learned from the beginning. May we not succumb to a loneliness that lies to us that our struggle is for naught. He works all things to our reconciliation and reunion to himself, which is far better than anything we could ever ask for or imagine.
“I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’ I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’; and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” -Hosea 2:23
A few weeks ago I was leaving for Nashville for the week (even though I was just there the weekend before, but what is being twenty something if not for burning up the road?) and because I meet with Kylie on Wednesdays I swapped out and met with her earlier in the week. I wrote about Kylie early on in our friendship through the local public school mentoring program here –she is a highlight of my life in Jefferson City this year, for sure.
Our time together is about as much of a seesaw as middle school is altogether. We generally talk about boys and family drama; the topic changes mid-sentence and is riddled with all kinds of confusion on my end, mainly because that gap between age and understanding is having to be learned and is no longer intuitive. Sometimes we talk about the real heart issues. But most of the time we don’t. Upon meeting Kylie, I wasn’t entirely sure why she had enrolled in the mentoring program in the first place. She tells me she makes good grades and doesn’t generally seem to make tidal waves wherever she goes. She is not shy or withdrawn. She has good friends and a half way decent family that takes her and her latest boyfriend to the park or the ice rink on the weekends to spend time together. Dating long distance from Jefferson City to Eugene, Missouri has its emotional toll on young, seventh grade love and the family is doing their part to keep it alive. I’ve not bought into the idea of ‘young, seventh grade love’ and thus, I would not probably do my part if I were Kylie’s parents. Regardless of my hypothetical parenting choices, Kylie appears to be a normal kid.
I noticed Kylie cut herself about a month into our weekly meetings, when she rolled her bright blue hoodie arms up past her elbows, exposing half a dozen thin scabbed lacerations, accented with silly bands, BFF bracelets, and youth retreat memorabilia. Her markings were not expertly hidden, angled, or deep. She does not cut often but has a handful of times since I’ve known her. “Ky, are you cutting yourself” I ask, surprised. “No,” she says quickly and then drops her head, “Well, yeah.” I ask her about them and she answers and seems a little embarrassed. She looks down at the ground when we talk about them, and that encourages me. I’ve never been able to understand the root of Kylie’s cutting but I always get the feeling that she doesn’t find any release in hurting herself. She seems stuck in a shallow gutter of self-destructive behavior.
A few weeks ago she wore a band aid on her ankle. She kept talking about her date over the weekend but I kept eyeing the band aid, expecting her to bring it up. She didn’t. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing towards it. She glanced down and looked surprised to see it. “Oh, it got caught on a hanger last week. Bled like a mother.” A hanger. Those words sounded distant and hallow. She picked at the frayed fringes of the worn out bandage. I remembered a hanger. She lied to me for years and I was a fool to believe her. A feeling of complete distrust and anger fell on me instantly and I lashed back, “Kylie, you’re lying to me.” She leaned away from me on the mezzanine couches defiantly. “I’m not! Why would you say that? Sarah pushed me off my bed last week and I fell on a broken hanger. You don’t get my problem anyway! I don’t cut like that.” She seemed frustrated but I could barely care. My heart was pounding wildly and I could barely breathe.
A hanger. A stupid hanger is what started this whole thing. Well really, it started showing signs in eleventh grade when Mollie’s second best friend Ethan moved from next door. I didn’t get it. They would see each other every day at school, which is more than I would see her. But still we sat on the curb, picking a pebbles while she stared. She stared so much that year. I didn’t mind the quiet even then but my experience in friendship was limited and didn’t recognize something was terribly wrong underneath it all. It had nothing to do with Ethan. She would perk up after a week or few days and we were back to exploring and running wildly about the neighborhood. We were not especially pretty or girly girls then, with flat blonde hair plainly chopped around our chins, with knobby appendages and freckles. We pretty much aspired to be one of her five brothers growing up. And thus our summers of walking barefoot on gravel, fan-girling over hobbits, learning archery, and extreme wagon racing down my parents hilly property would recommence. Sometimes we would hang out at her grandmother’s house in the summers and she would leave me in the dark house filled with doll houses and sit out on the dock by herself for a long time. My mom told me it’s good to give your friends space, so I sat with the dollhouses watching Unsolved Mysteries and creating fears that can never be undone. I wish I hadn’t for her sake. And mine. But she always bounced back and it became an unspoken part of our ritual of friendship for years.
Mollie is a very messy person. I’m messy but she’s way worse than me. Many times I would drive over to hang out which usually ended up helping her clean her room for an hour before we went anywhere. I didn’t mind it. I liked having her all to myself while trying on her clothes and perusing her unique collection of books. My senior year of high school we were cleaning up her closet of hats -yes, she had a closet of hats and scarves- when she said we should hang out at the park, which was one of our favorite places to hang. Ironically, the park we went to was the very park we met each other as six and seven year olds. I met her on a dare by my older sister. Mollie has always been allergic to mosquitos and the poor kid was covered in bites as a seven year old. I recently recovered from the chicken pox and thought maybe she was suffering as well but was shy from my recent move across the south, thus the dare.
We sat on the swing set, it was cool and terribly dark. Diane and Jan would not be happy mommas if they had known. I had spoken all my words for the day and enjoyed the silence and the wind through my hair when I swung back and forth but Mollie wasn’t talking or swinging -two of her favorite things, so I stopped. “I’ve been cutting myself.” She said without warning. “And I have been for a while.” She was not remorseful but rather, informative. I have no memory of the rest of our conversation except that at one point she began to explain why she liked cutting and it made me cry and she didn’t care that I was crying. I knew things were bad. A week later I saw a band aid on the inside of her arm and asked about it. “Oh, I caught it on a hanger.” She said lightly and I believed her. The next day she called me to tell me she lied about the hanger. That was the first time anyone owned up to lying to me, and I almost hated that she had. It made me sick. The following year was a blur for me as I became aware and things escalated. I got a call one afternoon that she locked herself in the bathroom. I almost wrecked my car trying to turn around and head to her house, I was in such a panic. I remember laying on the hallway floor, coaxing her through the crack under the door to open it for me while her little brother stood there wide-eyed. I remember cleaning the room of scissors and Xacto knives with her, praying over her before she went to bed, as nights were especially hard, and hearing about counseling and medication and hearing about anxiety and the word “bipolar”. I remember having to tell her parents with my two friends and anchors. I remember that day the most. I thought I was choosing between our friendship and her safety and I cried and cried afterwards. I thought nothing would be the same after that. But some things managed to stay the same. We still danced in her car. We learned how to communicate our feelings.
What started as cool, collected conversations with Kylie in attempts to understand what caused her to cut began a trickle of flashbacks. This is not uncommon for me to suppress bad memories. It’s taken me years to understand that writing is not something I do for enjoyment. it’s something I have to do, in order for me to make sense of the world. Mollie and Kylie’s hangers couldn’t be more different. It’s interesting how life works out. It’s hard to understand an experience that kicks you in the gut and changed everything. Mollie’s changed ended up being for the better. This is not everyone’s story. But this is her story and I’m grateful for her dedication to struggling to wholeness. We’re almost eight years removed from that night in the park and Mollie has seen so much positive change since then, I barely recognize that part of her story anymore. She now writes about beauty through vulnerability, and has a heart for women who feel “less than”. She is an amazing make up artist and stylist, whose dreams seem to be bigger and bigger every year. It’s because of this woman’s journey, I am not afraid when my little friend Kylie shows up with scabs and bruises. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a kick in the gut, I feel just as sick now as I did on that playground. But I am nemesis with this foe. It no longer terrorizes my friendships.
A few weeks ago, Kylie flopped down on the couch at the middle school where we meet every week and offered up before any greeting, “I’ve had a horrible week. Thursday was the anniversary of Chelsea’s death. You know, my friend from my old school.” I didn’t know. I hugged her. “Who is Chelsea? You’ve never mentioned her before.” Kylie picked at her thumbnail. “Well, we weren’t friends actually. I used to bully her. And she hung herself two years ago because of me.” She was clinching her fists. I’ve never felt more at a loss for words. “I just wish I had been kind. That’s why I cut.” She cried. I cried.
It hurts to love. It hurts to watch someone heal too. It’s not a bit easier at twenty-five than it was as a seventeen year old, nor will it as an eighty-two year old, I suspect. But nothing hurts as much as saying goodbye, which was an unexpected turn in Kylie and I’s story since I began writing this. Last week her mom pulled her out of the local middle school mid-week and enrolled her in another school district with no way of reaching her. Kurt, The mentor program coordinator, called me on my way home from Nashville to break the news to me. This was not the note I wanted to end on with Kylie. I planned for another year with her. I planned breakfast before school let out for the summer. I planned to see her heal. But that is not our story anymore. Kurt called to let me know he could get a letter to her before the end of the school year. It’s hard to convey into one letter everything you want to say to someone who needs to know so much.
I know we both know this isn’t how we wanted to end the year -we were going to change things up and do breakfast together! It makes my heart sad that our year has come to a close. There are a couple of things I wanted to make sure you knew before you begin a new chapter in your life.
1. You have brought so much joy to my life. Thank you for opening up your life and inviting me to be a friend, even though there’s an age gap between us. You are an encourager, a giggler, a story-teller, a friend, a dreamer, and many, many other things that are so good. You are a unique and beautiful person. If anyone makes you feel differently, then they are wrong. And if you think differently, then you are wrong. Sometimes you need someone else on the outside looking into your life to see what you can’t see. I’m that person, and you’re fantastic.
2. Thanks for sharing your struggles. I know you feel broken sometimes and it’s hard to find people who really understand what you’re going through, or your past, or your thoughts. I hope that you learn that you’re worth protecting yourself from negative thoughts or bad relationships, or sabotaging good relationships and you’re worth seeking help and advice when you feel like it’s too much. I’m broken too we’re all broken. But the great thing about being human is about the choice to take all those really jagged, broken pieces of our lives, sort through them, and watch a beautiful mosaic take shape that other people can admire, learn from, and be encouraged in their own little mosaic-making. Don’t give up!
3. The day you graduate from high school seems like it will literally never come. It will come. The day will come when you can drive, when you have a little more independence, when you live on your own. You will love it but it’s also complicated on this side of life too. Complicated isn’t bad, it’s just less glamorous than maybe it is in your head. Let me tell you from experience: all your big decisions in life are decided on the tiny, average, every day sort of decisions you make now. As you grow into a teenager on up, you get to decide what kind of person you want to be. Be faithful and responsible with the decisions you make this week, this month, this summer, next year, and so on. My hope is that you decide to be gracious to yourself and to others. That you choose to be a bold, courageous, truth-seeking, community changing, life-giving, woman who multiplies what she’s been given, to give to others. (I also hope you still grow up to become a singer) I see that potential in you. Carve those things you want in your life out of your character today.
4. If you ever feel low, or get what I call “heavy boots”, I hope you will remember how loved and wonderful you are. God loves you so much. I hope you can remember us talking about boys and laughing over selfies, or singing One Direction songs, and that you will remember that you took a chance with me and it turned out all right.
Mollie and I don’t talk much about those days because our lives have been overcrowded with laundry and boyfriends and education and new apartments and new jobs and getting married and texting weird memes and all the every day little miracles that happen to those to refuse to give in. Life. It really is a beautiful thing, prickles and all. We are hardwired for struggle and we are built to overcome. This is what I so desperately want Kylie to understand -that what she’s feeling now, doesn’t have to be forever. And while there are some obstacles that might always be there, they don’t have to enslave or define who she is. I’m grateful to live in an age where awareness of mental health is on the rise, as flawed as it might be as it stands. There is no easy solution to depression, anxiety, self harm, personality disorders, and everything in between and I can’t fix people. But I can love them and I can be someone who will empathize with their struggles.
Mollie knows I am writing about her story and was not only was gracious in letting me share, but excited to share her story with you for one simple reason: that if anyone reading this struggles with self harm or depression, she wants you to know that you are not alone. “And that’s half the battle, sometimes.” She said. “The most difficult part of cutting besides the emotional baggage was knowing that talking about it with someone would probably go nowhere. Because I could not adequately explain my emotions and the “why”, and because it’s a taboo topic that not many people have a good grasp on. The lie I believed for so long was, “no one understands’ equals ‘no one cares'”.
Let’s all be apart of this mental health issue by talking about it. Let’s refuse to let it be something that is taboo, something we whisper about or rant about ignorantly on Facebook. Let’s show with our time and words that our friends are not alone. Let’s research and build communities of encouragement and resource. Let’s show that their struggles are valid and that they are deserving of rich friendship and support. Think about the people who didn’t give up on you and how it’s led you to be the person you are today. We are built for struggle, yes; yet we are built to struggle together. I think about Kylie as a seventh grader, plucked out of her familiar middle school and moved to a new town with new people and being alone. I worry she’ll start cutting regularly over the summer and not have a counselor to talk to or a friend to encourage her. I worry this fall she’ll turn to boys for validation or be too anxious to study for math. I wonder who will pick up where I left off? Who are the Kylies in your life that if you just cleared a few things off your calendar could be the person who stands in the gap for her?
Oswald Chambers says, “Natural human love expects something in return. But Paul is saying, “It doesn’t really matter to me whether you love me or not. I am willing to be completely destitute anyway; willing to be poverty-stricken, not just for your sakes, but also that I may be able to get you to God.” “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor . . .” (2 Corinthians 8:9). And Paul’s idea of service was the same as our Lord’s. He did not care how high the cost was to himself— he would gladly pay it. It was a joyful thing to Paul.
The institutional church’s idea of a servant of God is not at all like Jesus Christ’s idea. His idea is that we serve Him by being the servants of others. Jesus Christ actually “out-socialized” the socialists. He said that in His kingdom the greatest one would be the servant of all (see Matthew 23:11). The real test of a saint is not one’s willingness to preach the gospel, but one’s willingness to do something like washing the disciples’ feet— that is, being willing to do those things that seem unimportant in human estimation but count as everything to God. It was Paul’s delight to spend his life for God’s interests in other people, and he did not care what it cost. But before we will serve, we stop to ponder our personal and financial concerns— “What if God wants me to go over there? And what about my salary? What is the climate like there? Who will take care of me? A person must consider all these things.” All that is an indication that we have reservations about serving God. But the apostle Paul had no conditions or reservations. Paul focused his life on Jesus Christ’s idea of a New Testament saint; that is, not one who merely proclaims the gospel, but one who becomes broken bread and poured-out wine in the hands of Jesus Christ for the sake of others.”
If you or someone you know struggles with self harm, check out the community built by To Write Love On Her Arms
Mollie is a make up artist and beauty blogger living in NYC. She blogs about every day make up looks and finding beauty through vulnerability. If you’d like to get to know her better or learn some sweet make up skills, visit www.astyleofyourown.com
I worked at an old camera and video shop in down town Rogers, Arkansas for sixteen months after graduating college. I was hired as a portrait/commercial photographer, but most of my days were spent behind the dusty laminate counters, selling cameras and video equipment, helping elderly customers upload photos at our kiosks, and occasionally teaching basic photography classes after hours. Enough time has passed that I’m becoming a bit sentimental about it, you know, in the disingenuous nostalgia that forgets the bad hours, and the searing arthritis, the truly mean customers, and in moments on break where you wondered in desperation if you could burn your social security card and walk away from man-made pressure and responsibility and befriend a raccoon that appreciated you for who you were, and not what kind of camera deals you could give him. Maybe I’ve been thinking about working at the camera shop more in particular now that it’s Easter.
Around Easter every year at the shop, they offered $10 live bunny portrait sessions, which is exactly as it sounds: wicked children, helpless parents, beady-eyed, caged bunnies, and giant Easter eggs and white picked fence backgrounds that resulted in eyesore photos parents went nuts for. Those weeks were the closest to the gates of hades I’ve been. It’s a universal truth that all babies would kill us for food and attention, could their physical ability match their will. While the will learns to simmer as babies grow and adapt to social norms, I saw it often spring up and turn homicidal towards myself as kids screamed, scratched, and even lunged at me. But it was the bunnies that had it the worst. The poor quivering Leporidae, pooping little turds of anxiety as the children squeezed, pulled, dropped, yanked, and tried to feed them their own feces. I defended the bunnies. I spoke on their behalf. I put them on a rotation to give them a break from the abuse, I fed them, cuddled them after hours, even though I am not a ‘rabbit person’ I recognized the need for affection. The farmer who put them on loan for us that year said I was a good caretaker but I hardly cared by the end of the two weeks. I just needed them out of my life permanently. The rabbits had turned on me. instead of seeing me as their protector, I had become their enemy. They began burrowing their back feet into my wrists, which became covered in bleeding claw marks. Kids could blame their scratches on the bunny now. I also discovered an unknown allergy to the little boogers that manifested itself only in the form of my throat swelling almost shut and the worst, my upper lip swelling up so large, the other sales guys couldn’t keep from laughing at me and calling me “Angelina Jolie”. “Say ‘cheese!'” I would say in a candy sweet, faux excited voice to the demon child before me, who gave a glare that seemed to say, “I’m getting treats no matter what, so I’m going to harass the bunny, scream at my leisure, and ruin. Your. Life.” There were seasons at the shop that flew by quickly but Easter portraits were the longest two weeks I can remember. What started as an optimistic two weeks of bunny portraits, produced a broken Lorax, who was through speaking for the bunnies, bunnies who had done nothing but broken my spirit and arm skin.
Being in customer service provides a unique relationship with people that allows you to see what people are made of. There’s something about wearing a name tag or uniform that makes you irrelevant or almost invisible, or even an exception. People’s guards tend to be down, which can be both beautiful and horrible. It’s beautiful when someone wants to share with me painfully honest stories about their life while ordering pictures at the kiosk or having a customer bring you coffee because they notice you enjoy it; it’s horrible when they raise their voice at you, or belittle the parts of yourself you wish were immune from strangers’ words. There were days I closed up shop so angry at how I was treated by customers and never having the justice I wanted. My thoughts and desires have shifted and matured from my time there. At the time my biggest problem was not having enough money to live off or enough time to invest in my personal relationships. I thought I wanted friends to be able to hang out with and weekends to learn new life skills, like cooking or jogging or weed eating. I thought I needed time to plug-in and serve at a local church. I thought I needed to repair relationships and make entirely new ones because that’s what good people do. I remember telling my coworker that I didn’t really know how I was doing in life and asked if he could give me a grade denoting how he thought I was succeeding. I’m glad I have that memory because I believe I verbalized something I will feel for the rest of my life. I just wish every four years, someone could just give me a grade. “B-, your inner personal relationships are great but your life goals have been on the back burner. Keep up the good work!” or “D+, you rot. Get some character and goals next time around.” How helpful would that be? Instead, I’m surrounded by a hundred opinions looking out for the interest of themselves, feeling very alone in my journey of living a worthy life.
I am friends with an elegant woman named Joan, who agrees to have coffee with me every Tuesday morning while we study the Bible and read books together and discuss them. She is truly beautiful, inside and out and I’m super lucky to have her as a mentor and a friend. One thing I love about Joan is her dedication to telling stories. She is a recorder of family history and inner personal growth, an avid journaler, and advocate of all of us church gals of “writing down what God is doing”. I want to be better at that. God has done so many amazing things in my young life and by the time I’m forty, I’ll have forgotten all but a handful if I’m not careful. And Joan is paying me a kindness to warn me, for which I am grateful. I’ve wanted to write and remember how much God has reshaped what I value in life since my frustrated days closing at the camera shop, feeding Easter bunnies, missing out on weekend activities with new friends, and sitting lonely in a packed church.
I’m a dreamer by nature and dream for the day I don’t worry about if I’ll ever pay my student loans off, or have a job that makes a marked difference on the world, or if I’ll get to live in the city, or write that screenplay, or have that moment, or see that day, or if I’ll ever get to raise a kid. And while dreaming is good because it encourages and reminds us of what’s to come, God is changing what I truly want, shifting what things or people can do for me or I for them, to two simple things. So here are my two simple things I want my life to be full of for the rest of my days:
1. I want to bear witness to what God is doing in my life and others’ lives.
2. I want to bless the Lord.
Bearing witness is a hard thing to combat again the wish to change or heal, but I cannot change or heal other people, I can only listen and I can show up. And blessing the Lord seems like such an oxymoron but yet the Psalmist speaks of this often. I’m particularly moved by the story of Mary Magdalene breaking the alabaster flask and anointing Jesus and how that blessed Him, and not in a condescending sort of way, but in a way that truly uplifted and honored him.
I’m weary of holding onto my dreams and fears and wondering what grade I’m getting in life. I’m probably failing in many ways but that’s okay. I’m ready to celebrate what I have today and show gratefulness in all circumstances. I’m ready to stop searching for lives to change, or try to change myself, and I want to sitting on my lifebench, open to whoever comes my way and to listen and discover what God is making new in them and letting them go when they need to go. I’m tired of complaining, worrying, and dreaming up something better for myself. I want to break all of those things at the feet of Jesus and wipe His feet with them, fully surrendered in joy to his work and leading in my life. Joan is right: remembering is important. I want to remember this day on a day that’s hard to see straight. It’s good to remember truths that hold in seasons of gain and loss so I become anchored in any weather.
I remember a loyal customer at the camera shop, who was an older local doctor. Doctor Redwine had a full gray beard and thick black rimmed glasses that never managed to cloak his kind, wrinkled face. He came in often to buy prints and check on any new camera models. His son was a freelance journalist living in Beirut and Doctor Redwine was incredibly proud of him. They both shared a love of the outdoors and photography and he spoke of him almost every time he came in the shop. I don’t know that he was much of a memorable customer to the other sales associates as he was to me, but he was someone who managed to recharge by soul batteries just by being himself. He was soft-spoken, serious, and even-keeled.
Camera companies always release new models in the spring and fall and Doctor Redwine was on the lookout for the new Nikon model for his son that fall. He had preordered the body and came in at least once a week to see if the shipment arrived. He was giving it to his son for Christmas when he returned from Beirut with his family for the holidays. The shipment finally came in December and the camera emerged from the large cardboard box with his name stamped on it. My boss grinned, “Well you better call him and tell him it’s here.” He knew I liked Doctor Redwine a lot. I called and left an eager message, “It’s Bri Suitt at the camera shop! The eagle has landed!” A week passed by and he didn’t pick up. It felt strange. We were pressed from the other branches to transfer and sell the camera but I held my ground. Doctor Redwine wanted that thing more than anyone and I wanted it for him. Two weeks passed and then I called again. He answered.
“Hi Doctor Redwine, it’s Bri from the camera shop. I-” He cut me off before I could deliver my good tidings.
“Hello Bri. You can give the camera to another customer.” His voice sounded tired and strained. “My son passed away before Christmas and I don’t need a new camera, so I’m not sure what I would do with it.”
It was a moment I was totally unprepared for. I stumbled over my words, saying how sorry I was over and over. He was kind and endured. Before I ended the painful conversation he paused. “You know, I’d like to see it before you ship it off. Can I come by this week and check it out?” I told him of course and he hung up. I read an article that night about his son in an Arab news group. He fell to his death climbing in the Sannin mountains. He was 33 with a wife and kids. I can’t imagine what that news felt like for his family.
Doctor Redwine showed up the following Monday. He looked older. He moved slower and even looked shorter. It hurt me to see such a kind man look so beaten down, playing with a camera he would never be able to give as a surprise to his son. I leaned over the computer on the counter, googling questions he had about the specs. It seemed like such a normal interaction at the shop and I hated that. I finally mustered up the courage to break the ice separating normality with reality.
“Dr. Redwine, your son would have loved this camera. You’re such a good dad to want buy this for him.”
He sighed the heaviest sigh I’ve ever heard, looked at me, and smiled, “All fathers want to give their sons good gifts. He was a joy.” We were quiet for a bit and then he said, “Christmas was so sad this year but it made Christ all the more necessary. I’m so grateful for that. Thank you for keeping the camera for me to see.” He left shortly after that and I never saw him again before I moved to Missouri.
I think about what Doctor Redwine said that day often and how right it was to bear witness in the tiniest capacity to his pain as he blessed the Lord. And those short sixteen months that could easily be remembered as unsavory and insignificant bunny-riddled and mini meltdowns in the break room are also marked with beauty and significance.
Joan is right, it is good to remember.
I sat next to a fidgety businessman on my connecting flight to Chicago this afternoon. He looked exactly like Jerry Lewis in his late thirties/early forties, except he lacked Lewis’ dimpled chin. I could tell he was nervous. He was in the bathroom during boarding and came out after everyone was seated, sat down, and wiped his clammy looking forehead. He mumbled a few times, which made me uncomfortable, unsure to whom he was speaking. The captain came on and announced that we were clear for take off and the man next to me muttered “Oh boy.” Which I thought nothing of, looking out the window as we barreled down the runway. I like to try to predict the exact moment we lift. When we did, the man yelped, “OH GOD, OH GOD, OH GOOOD!” and reached under his seat and pulled out a ridiculous pointy toboggan and put it on, and then gripped his seat handles, totally petrified. I’m sure I just stared but everyone else seemed to ignore him. When we leveled out, he got a Kleenex and wiped his face. I asked him if he was okay and he smiled and pulled a plum out of his jacket pocket “Yeah. I hate planes. Would you like a plum?” I told him I was good and he slurp ate three plums the remainder of the flight and compulsively checked the time. He didn’t yell or grab his seat during descent but he called his wife after we taxied and I overheard him say, “I was a champ, Diane. A champ.” I imagine this is the sort of life Bob Wiley would be living were he real. (“I’m flying! I’m flying! I’m a pilot, I fly! Ahoy!”)
Narrative Film was probably one of my favorite classes in college. It’s the perfect combination of work and play, or so I thought until the weekend before the project was due. The class operated by submitting short fiction film pitches and the class voted on their top five. The top five were allowed to write and direct their film. I pitched mine with more certainty and gusto than I actually possessed. My film made it through, to which I was both proud and horrified. I dislike herding people, especially students, which was pretty much the summation of being a director in Narrative Film. That, and being agents of change and beauty. Students are like cats. Frantic, sassy, sweat panted, nap lovin’ cats, who can thrive off of Taco Bell at midnight, something that would now slowly kill me before dawn’s first light.
My crew of cats assembled, Dave, my dear friend and class seat buddy, was our cinematographer. He was my cheerleader in college. I don’t know if I would have graduated without all of his encouragement. Jordan was our editor, an extremely attractive young man with the face and body of a Greek god or hair model. I didn’t know him but vowed that I would by the time the credits rolled from our earth shattering breakthrough film. Jess was our assistant production manager and my roommate. She made sure everything was accounted for and where it needed to be. And also made sure I was up for class, she an insomniac who probably slept a week total that school year and I, a chronic morning struggler who slept more than probably our whole class combined. It was a match made in heaven both personally and professionally. Harv was our sound guy, but worked almost full-time at a sports equipment store and was rarely around, thus we sort of made up jobs to make him feel a part. And then there was Justin, our gaffer. Justin was an international student from Thailand famous on campus for having terrible dandruff and temper and also for running everywhere. He ran to the cafeteria, he ran to check campus mail, he ran to chapel. He was known on campus simply as “Running Man”. One day I overslept and walked out of my dorm to see campus completely empty and Justin off in the distance running to class, my class. The one I was apparently late to. I panicked and ran all the way across campus, sliding into a darkened, empty class room. I sat down, confused. Justin and I sat there alone, panting heavily. “Are we late?” I asked, he glanced at his Velcro watch, “No,” he heaved, “We’re fifteen minutes early.” He curled up and began to nap. I sat there, mortified at my immediate past and all who sat bored and hungry, looking out of the art building, probably laughing at the fool who chased after Justin, the Running Man.
We were an odd few, we desperate upperclassman, hoping to make something we could put in a portfolio reel while applying for our inevitable jobs post college at movies theaters, canning plants, and nanny positions. The film did not prove to be such but most of us included snippets anyway, as our reels were malnourished as they were. But we had fun, as all things outside of due dates in Narrative Film were. I found Justin sleeping on set in the backseat of my car, which was both terrifying to discover yet comforting I didn’t have to worry about him yelling at our extras or running over loose equipment.
Production ended on schedule, which was a relief as we slid into the editing room for our last phase, aka Operation Get to Know the Hot Guy in Class 6.0. Jordan transferred to the university the semester before, making him a novelty. Tiny private schools boast the student teacher ratio 13:1 but tend to hide evidence that the dating scene feels a bit incestuous by senior year. Everyone knew everyone before you even met them. And everyone knew Jordan, as his face preceded him. To be honest, he probably was more attractive as a middle schooler than I was in my early twenties but I was banking on my swanky leadership skills and kind-of -funny humor to woo him in the Mac lab, a windowless attic filled with overheating machines, and the stench of stale fast food and unbathed bodies. I walked in the lab and spotted him across the way, unpacking an external hard drive and headphones. He nodded at me. Good. We were off to a great start. “What’s up man?” I asked, trying to internally grab the bro-ish words as they stampeded out of my mouth. He didn’t seem phased. “Hey, we’ll have to edit as much as we can until 9:30 and then I have a meeting until 10:30. Then we can edit after that.”
I was annoyed that I was just now hearing of this, the one evening I had cleared my entire night for to make both professional and personal magic. But he smiled, “But don’t worry it’s going to look awesome!” Okay, that made me forget. “Sure!” I laughed as daintily as my horn like laugh would allow, “Take all the time you need!” We didn’t talk much outside of the film, as it’s almost impossible, plus I was slowly deterred by less than stellar footage and annoyed that his leg twitched nonstop. 9:30 rolled around and I began to pack up to grab a late dinner. “See you in an hour” I said, and left. I returned fifteen minutes early to catch him still in the mac lab, holding hands with an attractive blonde, eating cookies and milk. They giggled and played with each others’ hair and shared cookies. He had set aside an hour “meeting” with his new girlfriend, milk, and cookies while I checked on my empty mail box, ate a soggy sandwich while I edited a paper, and missed a trip to EZ Mart with my friends to get Icees and blow pops, the greatest duo known to man. The man was both frustrating and cunning. I ended their cookie and cuddle date/meeting shortly and halted my wooing, as it proved I didn’t actually have much woo anyway, he was spoken for, and we were behind schedule.
I left the mac lab late that night, worn out and annoyed. It was raining and I’d cultivated a terrible habit of not wearing appropriate footwear for such occasions, but the weather was warm, so I slipped off my shoes and rolled up my jeans, running quickly to my car. I thought about Jordan and what it would be like to be adored distantly by all, simply because you lucked out on the gene pool and transferred to a small, sexually starved Christian university. I remember a guy once asking me in the hallway if I had cancer because I was wearing my hair shorter. I talked about that for months. It was simultaneously disturbing, offensive, yet exciting that a stranger noticed me. Later that night, I slumped into my dorm, my wet feet squeaking on the tile. Jess was laying in the dark, her version of sleeping, and whispered, “how was editing tonight?” I sighed. “Jordan told me that he had a meeting to go to but really planned a mini date with his, I guess, girlfriend. Plus the footage was just okay.” I was tired and defeated. She rolled over and turned on her reading light, “Jordan’s stupid.” She said. “They were eating cookies and milk.” I informed flatly, just standing there in the middle of the room. It was quiet. Jess burst into her sing-songy laugh. She laughed long enough for me to join -and mean it. I shook my head, “All I know is that relationship better work out because I sacrificed going to get Icees with you guys.”
Their relationship did not last in college, and he moved on as most things in college do. I think about that night often, at how silly I was and how much fonder I’ve become of that story over the years. It gets funnier to me with time. Yesterday an old college buddy posted a funny picture of her child on Facebook and underneath it was a comment from Jordan exclaiming, “Right on!” I clicked to his profile, almost five years removed from that class.
He and the blonde are back together. I’m going to buy myself an Icee.
This weekend is busy. I’m out of town with my team putting on a leadership conference at Midwestern Seminary in Kansas City. We do weekend events several times a year which always involves being around good friends and ministry partners, running around doing last-minute things, meeting people, promoting our events, and generally being ‘on’ 24/7. I enjoy these sorts of weekends -it’s a manifestation of hard work and a picture of what your work does on the field, which is nice to see. If you’re reading this, I’m probably struggling to wake myself up in a hotel room that’s too dark and cold for my own good. This is nothing new in my world but I’ll admit today is going to be a little ‘off’ and there’s a bit of a lump in my throat that’s been there all week.
Today’s the day my sister Britt boards a plane and moves to South Africa. There is nothing but good things in that last sentence. Really. What is more exciting that seeing someone you love find the place their supposed to be? I guess the thing that’s hard is having to share. Having to be okay without her changing into her matching pajamas at eight o’clock at night to serve evening tea in her red and white toile tea set at eight-thirty. The blessing of being with someone is probably one of the gifts that is more often taken for granted because they are just a stone’s throw away living life, something that seems so completely average. Maybe the reluctance for me is because my family hasn’t had a lot of terribly drastic changes over the years. Maybe it’s because even though I’ve been the one to live away, I’ve always been a six-hour drive home and always had access to my family. Maybe it’s just because even though two years fly by, on the days where I need Britt to do a rain dance two years just seems like a lifetime. Maybe it’s because I’m confronted with the reality that in everyone’s story, God is at work and He leads and calls regardless -many times without a time cap on it- even if it makes me a little sad. And that is such a good thing!
This week has reminded a lot of when my sister Elise got married. I had just started my freshman year at college and being without a car, missed out on showers and all the pomp and circumstance of the wedding arrival. I was packed and ready to leave the night before the rehearsal dinner when Elise called me to square away a few wedding details about my arrival the next day. There was a pause and then a few giggles from the two of us, not sure how to end the conversation. I remember saying “I can’t wait to see you tomorrow! And then you’re going to get married!” and Elise laughing and saying “I love you!” and I replied that I loved her too, and hung up the phone. I was checking campus mail and was not ready for the flood of tears that came when we hung up. I cried on my way back to my dorm. That phone call seemed to signal the end of an era, which devastated me, only to usher in almost seven years of the added blessing of growing family -brother-in-law, niece and nephew, new family traditions.
The really uncomfortable moments in life can also be the really good ones. I’m sad only because I love my sister. My rationality says to only be excited but it’s never that simple. I read recently that “joy is grief inside out” -I didn’t really understand how that applied in my life until I thought about Britt and even my phone call with Elise. Joy is sustainable and happiness is not. I rejoice that Britt is moving and thus, ushering in a new era yet again for my family. I rejoice that although my family is scattering and changing, squabbling at times, and dysfunctional, that we love one another. I rejoice for the opportunity to worship one last time and take the Lord’s supper as our home church commissioned Britt last Sunday.
Days like today serve to remind me that while I’m caught up in my busy that can’t always be rearranged, I can pause and think about the little corner of my heart that is a bit frantic and unsettled about the impending change, and say “peace, peace.”
Grateful that Britt has a church that commits to “holding the ropes” for her – I love that quote by William Carey.
Last weekend I went to a late night showing of John Well’s August: Osage County mainly in preparation for the Academy Awards. If you don’t click with my rationale there, just tell yourself it’s Bri’s Super Bowl party. Kind of the same thing. I wasn’t particularly drawn to the film outside of a deep admiration of Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep (Adaptation, anyone?). The trailers seemed predictable: dark comedy of family dysfunction under the matriarchal tyranny of the film goddess Meryl Streep. Thus, I rushed over to Goodrich Theatre, scooting in right as the trailers finished, lucky to be solo and grabbing the best seat in the house -just north of center, feet propped against the lone chair in front of me. The film started and I sat for two hours, horrified at what took place for the next two hours and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Before I dive into it, I was not familiar with screenwriter and playwright Tracy Lett’s original play to begin with, and so I didn’t have any expectations for adaptation. I am not familiar with any of director John Well’s work (West Wing, Company of Men)and quite honestly, this film revolves so much around character development that his narrative took back burner for me. Nothing screamed “The product of the director’s genius” although it feels unfair to critique something that couldn’t have happened without him. I’ve watched a handful of cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s films (Jane Eyre, Conviction, Sin Nombre) and his work is solid, nice at best. There were a few great shots but I can’t say I will remember them vividly in the future. This Oscar hyped movie truly boils down to one thing: performances. And it’s loaded with good ones.
If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s set in Oklahoma’s sweltering August heat as the estranged Weston family is forcefully reunited after Bev (Sam Shepard), the alcoholic father, goes missing. The story centers on Bev’s wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), a prescription drug addict suffering from tongue cancer, and her three struggling daughters Barb, Karen, and Ivy (played by Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julian Nicholson). It’s a tragedy more than comedy, that unearths all sorts of Weston secrets, misfortunes, and dysfunction -to be vague to any who plan to see it. Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper play Violet’s sister and brother-in-law and Benedict Cumberbatch as their sweet and awkward son. Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, and Dermot Mulroney are also grafted into the Weston family.
It’s definitely worth noting this film took an R rating from the MPAA for “language including sexual references, and for drug material”. And it earned every bit of its rating. The film centers entirely around alcohol and drug addiction, not shying away from incest, suicide, marital infidelity, racism, pedophilia, abuse, to name a few. For what the New York Daily news is calling a “cinematic fruitcake: a dense ode to excess” or what Oregon Live praised as, “A darkly comic, emotional tour de force” -how hilarious are both of those quotes- it’s easy to either be disgusted by the story or mesmerized by the performances. Most reviews out there seem to only focus on these two obvious elements. And if film were only made up of good storytelling and convincing performances, then I’m pretty sure I just spent nine dollars to watch a filthy movie with actors who made me forget it was made up, but it’s not. Film, like all art forms and most things in life, is more than just a medium of performance or tale. It’s a friend, an enemy, it’s balm, it’s escape, it’s painful. It’s connection to a character, or a line, or a setting, like those smells that send you back to your childhood or that stranger at the store you can’t help but convince yourself the impossible. And while this film is certainly not for everyone’s eyes, it was something that resonated deeply with me.
Violet Weston was a woman I knew. A combination of women who were mean and nasty and hurt people I love. She was a woman you wanted to punch her teeth out and hug her neck all at the same time. Michael O’Sullivan for the Washington Post probably says is best:
“Despite some moments of caustic humor, highlighted in the film’s misleading trailer, August: Osage County is in no way a comedy. Neither is it simply interested in wallowing in Violet’s unrelenting ugliness. Two scenes — one in which Violet recalls her own mother’s cruelty to her, and another in which she’s shown dancing, a lonely and unlovable creature who is both a survivor and a perpetrator of abuse — reveal the not-so-subtly hidden message of Letts’s play and film. It’s a message reflected in the several generations of women at the heart of the story, from Violet’s unseen mother to Barbara’s still salvageable adolescent daughter: Monsters aren’t born, but made.”
This story of a monster of a mother stuck to me. I’ve seen other manipulative mother performances but this one felt tailored to me. There were many moments in this depressing tale that reminded me that it’s only by grace that our families don’t fall apart; we’re all closer than we think to crumbling like the Weston family. I told my friend over the phone as I was leaving the theater, “I don’t know that I would recommend it but it was important.” There was nothing redemptive in this story, save one moment where Uncle Charlie threatens to divorce to his wife of 38 years if she doesn’t stop verbally abusing their son, yet it was important. August is made of the kind of real issues our communities deal with daily. I had a strange urge to write Meryl Streep and thank her for her performance. It was hard to watch but I felt less lonely. It was comforting to know other people live in the complexities of people like Violet Weston.
Tim Keller tweeted earlier today that “Marriage is painful and wonderful because it reflects the gospel that is both painful and wonderful at once.” and I couldn’t help but be the one person who missed its point entirely by immediately thinking about the Christian community’s largely hostile relationship with Hollywood. I’ve struggled with this hostility for as long as I remember, a product of the TV Guardian swearing filter, the truly crappy Christian film industry supporter, only to be burned out, and deeply questioning why we shouldn’t resonate the broken parts of life. The scenarios that remain totally unhealed. The characters that reflect real people around us. Keller points out that this Gospel that we live and breathe and die for is both painful and wonderful and necessary. It’s easy to fixate on the wonderful and neglect the painful. Can we be honest enough to listen to the heartbeat of the world around us? Can we unglue ourselves from the walls of our Christian communities, churches, families, friends, to consider why the Gospel is so necessary for all generations for all times?
It’s easy to pad with the plush, the black and white, the happy ending, the story where the protagonist makes the right choice, the general sentiments this blogger holds. But it’s much harder to watch with discernment and understand the depths of our own depravity enough to blink away a frustrated tear, to allow the fermata to hold over the words “The End”. I think sometimes we judge these ‘secular’ expressions of life because they seem hopeless and we don’t want them to hold true. We operate out of fear but author Brene Brown points out so keenly that our “faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” Sometimes we have our sweaty, sticky, little kid palms wrapped tightly around the things we want made right, one of the few things we can control, even down to our movies.
August: Osage County was an exercise of prying my little hands away and empathizing deeply in the totally dysfunctional, heart-breaking world we live in. And maybe this isn’t your exercise but perhaps you will be challenged to lower your shield of defense and really hear the stories that so desperately remind us of the promise of Revelation 21:4.