I grew up in a Christian home. We attended church services three times a week and if the church building was open at any other time, chances are, we were there. We even moved a few blocks away from the church, just so we could have better access. My dad was the music pastor and an elder, my mom volunteered and was also an active part of the women’s ministry. My brother and I sang in church musicals, acted in the drama team and lead worship for the youth group. In other words, we lived and breathed church.
When I was sixteen,
Because I thought I couldn’t go to church leaders for prayer and support, I turned the only direction that a sixteen year old would know to turn to: my school friends. As the pain grew more intense, I threw myself into harmful situation, upon harmful situation, hoping to allow the disintegrating mask of perfection to hold up just a little bit longer. I went places that, before, I would never had ventured. I created a new “identity” at school that now reflected a shield of carelessness and supposed resilience. Meanwhile, I continued to be involved in all the same church activities, said the “right” things and even took leadership positions in my youth group. I was a self-made hypocrite.
The slow cutting away of the bond of genuineness, and my poor choices burned deeply and I felt my grasp slipping. I tried not to care, not to feel, but that wasn’t who I was. The friends who surrounded me, both at school and at church, noticed the changes, but they didn’t understand how deep I felt I had slipped. If I allowed the pain to rule me, I couldn’t be in control. Yet, I couldn’t have been more out of control.
One night, I found myself sitting in a trailer, surrounded by people I didn’t know, a can of cheap beer in one hand, lit cigarette in the other and numbing painkillers coursing through my veins. Driving myself home that night, I hated who I was. I sat in my room, arguing with the demons in my head who told me that if I would just give in to the anger, I wouldn’t be in pain any longer. The surge of relief that came during self-injury, only brought more anxiety as my shattered mask fell off. First, in front of my “friends” and, more embarrassingly, in front of my church family. People began to see my brokenness and even my school friends were afraid for me. A counselor at school called me down to the office and I continued to spit out the lie that I didn’t even believe anymore. “I’m okay.” My conscience self screamed out in desperation and soon after, I did the unthinkable.
I told someone I trusted.
She had been my camp counselor the year before and her faith in God and her willingness to see my ugly heart gave me the permission I needed to let the pain out. It didn’t solve the mess I had created in my dirty, broken world, but it began to loosen the bricks in the wall between the spirit of who I really was and the person I was striving to appear to be. “They” didn’t have to see a perfect church-going teen who had perfect church attendance. “They” didn’t matter anymore. God did. All I wanted to do was become the authentic person God created me to be. God did so much healing not only in me but in my family. What once was painful, years later, now has become stories of healing and joy.
In the end, it doesn’t matter what my “secret’ was. We all have them. Maybe its not a family secret, but its there. Its haunting, ugly and its constant reminder causes us to push it deeper, lest we be exposed as the broken, imperfect people that we are.
In a world of perfection, we can get caught up easily with the mask of faultless image wearing. We walk around with our head high, presenting a masquerade of good-will and covering our pain and worries in sheep skinned costumes. We nod and laugh off problems while inside we are caving in fear and insecurity. None of us are immune to this faulty thinking. We can pretend that everything is wonderful, God is good and that we are flying high on His grace, but then, deep inside, we are severely struggling. We are angry at our spouse, frustrated with our job, our kids or maybe just feel exhausted in life altogether. Whether you are a ministry leader or you haven’t walked into a church your entire life, it is equally important that we all learn to be authentic with others. That doesn’t mean that we need to get on a blow horn and proclaim our failures or secrets. It means that we admit to others when we are struggling!
In his book, The Heart of the Artist, Rory Noland said,
“Authenticity is a powerful witness to the presence of God in our lives. It doesn’t mean we are perfect. It means we are real.”
So why don’t we? Why are we afraid to relate our “real” lives to each other? If I am completely honest with myself, I am afraid of breaking the conceived image that I believe others have of me. I am a pastor’s wife. I am a person in church leadership. If I can’t handle life issues, what hope do they have? But who is “they” anyway? When I really dig deep, I realize that more than anything, the world, in general, is looking for people who are not afraid to be themselves, scars and all. Just look at the continued rise in reality shows. We want to see people in their element, facing life, however tough or uncomfortable, and inside we are cheering for them to succeed. Why? Because, deep down inside, we believe that if an ordinary person can face that challenge, I might just have hope too.
The problem with spending so much time covering up who you are is that the next time you are in a situation that is uncomfortable or not clearly laid out, you quickly retrieve the mask of insecurity buried deep in your pockets and slap it back on. It has taken me over 20 years to finally grasp that the pattern of destructive hiding I had become accustomed to, was eating at the heart of who God wanted me to be. And I know I am not alone. There are millions of people out there who desperately want to embrace their true self when facing pain and discomfort. I don’t have the answers or the step-by-step guide, but I know its possible. It just takes a bit of something we call “discomfort”.
(to be continued…)