There are two things I need to share with you this week. I’m going to tell you right up front. Would you believe me? I’ll try to show you as well. Number one, I have sensitive skin, and two, I’m very interested in being interesting. Both of these facts are true and have their merits and faults. They were huge motivations in my self-protective tendencies over the years and still can be if I’m not careful. At the same time, they are a big part of my story of who I am and Jesus’ love for me.
Three summers ago, I was going through cardboard boxes of our family’s life that had been stored in a garage for over 20 years. We moved so much growing up that we never unboxed them because the next move was sure to come, and my parents had no time. We carried these boxes across the country from Virginia to New Mexico to Kentucky to Arkansas all the way back to Virginia. Do you ever feel a burden of the things boxed up in your life? That you carry forever just to bring it right back to it’s original place? It felt overwhelming and then freeing to go through it all.
Among many treasures, I found the first application for school that my parents wrote for me at the ripe ole age of 18 months. One sentence stood out, “Sarah is a sensitive child.”
It’s true. It’s always been true. And it’s been known since I was young. Even physically true. Brushing my hair hurt. I used to cringe every time my mom brushed my hair or when she accidentally started scratching my back like my sister enjoyed when I only liked a gentle tickle barely touching my skin when being tucked in at night. I remember thinking I was weak. In highschool, my sensitive skin was full of acne. I was so ashamed of my face. To this day, I’ll find that there are certain things my hands and legs fall prey to that other’s don’t because my skin is so sensitive. Maybe I’m just not as good at performing the tasks, but seriously sometimes touching a certain surface will mess up my hands. I’m sensitive to certain noises like the sounds of motorbikes in the streets of Athens or slamming doors or bass-heavy music.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a glass woman. I do a lot with this body I’ve been given. Those things didn’t stop me from living my life, and my parents were pretty good at pushing me to try despite my fears and pain. I know my limits now. You see, for years, I pushed through to grow thick skin. After all, even with plants, appropriate stress can be used for strengthening. Here’s some natural means of grace in this department, humanly speaking: 1. Having younger siblings and cousins and friends 2. Learning how to start over at new schools over and over again 3. Team sports 4. Reading about characters that rose above their challenges and situations in beloved books 5. Fighting against any sign of weakness to prove that I could do it and excel by working hard 6. My parents’ divorce and other relational breaks 7. Traveling by myself in other countries, taking risky moves in life like following art and ministry as a calling
Folks, I wanted to prove that I could be tough. And then as I matured, I became interested in being interesting. As soon as a mean or doubting comment would come directed at me I would quickly have a response to prove myself right or better in some way. I remember reading the book Sarah, Plain, and Tall. I did not want to be labeled as plain. I wanted to be something special. I wanted to be unique and lovable. I wanted people to say WOW. I wanted so much to fit in wherever I was too. I wanted to be myself and to be loved. Isn’t that what we all want?
And then, I remember middle school girls remarking on the hair on my legs or the way I practiced my handwriting on my school papers or how loud I sang in my choir audition. Or how innocent I was in regards to sexual things. I remember thinking I would have to be cool to be able to get a boy’s attention and have the right friends.
Well, when that childlike behavior of being cool obviously and tragically didn’t work, I was wounded. I was determined to hide my wounds. I decided to hide behind the thick skin of comedy. I thought sarcasm and keeping a cool head about things while being nice and smart would get me through my days. It seemed like the only option to jump from being cool to being cool. Yea I know, not the best logic.
Well, there’s a lot of this ebb and flow of fighting my sensitivity and trying to be interesting in my life to prove myself. I want to surprise people and earn their love. Maybe I was trying to do that with God?
I’m reading a book right now that made me pause for a good bit when the main character overhears a more, let’s just say, questionably immoral, character praying to God. The thing is, the character is not saying big wordy, interesting prayers. He’s just telling God what his day was like. He’s relating the facts to him and reliving the moments laughing and being real with Him.
When I was little, my Grandpa would take me out to his garden. We would take a pile of scraps from the kitchen to throw in the compost hole on the way to the garden. I didn’t know what it was, but I remember seeing the cut ends of vegetables and eggshells. I just thought that’s how farm people threw their trash away. I wouldn’t realize he was composting until twelve years later. He would walk with his old wooden cane while I followed him taking in the sights of the growing vegetables that he would point out. He loved his garden. Sometimes his temper would be tested by some critter that got into a plant and sometime he whistled, or at least I think he whistled. I’m fuzzy on that, but I think there’s truth to that memory.
The rest I do remember: I loved watching him love the garden. I would help weed or look at the different plants and their progress or find bugs around the garden. He would take me to the old barn that became a sort of gardening shed. It was one of those old barns with creaky gray wood and the musty smell of a farm complete with spiderwebs and the breeze of amazing grace. I loved every inch of it. I was also a little terrified of it because it was dangerous. I was warned often to be careful to not fall in one of the broken floor boards or when climbing the dilapidated steps, but still, I was permitted to explore. I would find old jars of nails, seeds, little odds and ends of things saved and stored by a generation brought up in the Great Depression where nothing goes to waste. I would save things myself from this barn like a button or an interesting jar or bottle. I could imagine being a witch and collecting potions or a princess locked in a tower. I could imagine being in one of my many books where children had to survive on their own. For some reason, I read a lot about orphans. I could explore that place forever. I remember loving the old movie Heidi and daydreaming of having a barn window to wake up and look out across the fields every morning. There was much that could be imagined with a wad of twine saved from hay bales. My cousins and I would even make brick dogs out of old bricks loosed around the farm. A half-brick would be a puppy. That twine, the leash.
Grandpa would finish up his tasks and invite me to look at his grapevine with him. It was near supper time and the breeze was light in the near golden hour of the day. He taught me how to check the color and size of the grapes. He squeezed them into his mouth and spit out the seeds unto the earth. Maybe they would grow some more grapes. Maybe they would be food for some creature. I effortlessly did the same. The gooey inside would pop out of the skin and into my mouth. The sweet grape filling my tastebuds like no other grape I’d ever had from the store. I couldn’t get enough. And there weren’t many ready so I would have to wait. I remember the twinkle in his eyes as we shared moments like this in his garden.
And then he would collect his old feed bucket to take back to the kitchen to fill up again for the compost and situate his hand on the cane, and we would walk back inside for a big ole meal with everyone else. I had my special time with Grandpa. That old worthless cane is by my back door now, and I think about walking with him in the garden every time I see it. It is worth the world to me.
I’m going to tell you what to do. You need to pull yourself together. You need to toughen up. You need to do better. You need to be cool. You need to be interesting. You need to earn love. You need to be sure to compost your waste. Pull your weeds. Water your flowers. Spray for bugs. Put up a fence around your garden. You’ll never succeed if you don’t listen to me.
Does that make you clam up to hear me say those words? I don’t like to be told what to do either. I became a person that self-protected so much I started telling other people what to do. It became a self-protection of my self-protection. Other people looked to me, and I thought I had the answers. Sometimes they weren’t even looking for answers, but I gave them to them anyways. Ugh, I’m so sorry for that if you have personally felt that from me. I was wrong. It took me a long while, but I’m realizing true learning and protection comes from delight and play and walking with a friend. Discipleship is loving something with someone. Healing is cutting open the thick skin of self protection, and letting the sweetness do it’s thing.
Grandpa could have told me that he was composting and explained it all to me, but instead he just let me join him on his evening garden walk. He gave me vision and memory. He in his own way said “Remember Me” by loving me, imperfectly compared to Christ, but totally and completely him. I think that is the gift of the elderly, especially the elderly in our immediate families. They can be completely themselves. They’ve hopefully learned the things that work and don’t work. They can enjoy the days as they come as gifts.
Lately, I’ve been singing the song “Day by Day” from Godspell. Would you know something? I have never seen that musical, but I love that song because my dad will sing it to us periodically. It is something I have learned to love because another person simply loved it in my presence. Well, that song is so timely for me right now in the midst of this surreal season. If there is one thing that I’m learning in this time, it is to not worry about tomorrow, because that really does achieve nothing.
I’ve shared a lot about me today; it’s my story that I know best. I’m still getting to understand it, but here’s something actually “cool;” God has a beautiful way of extending mercy and grace to my self-protection tendencies. He saw me run to traveling to make myself interesting. He showed me that traveling for my own advantage achieves nothing, and on the way, he pursued me to himself. He showed me his adopting garden abundant heart towards this orphan desert -minded soul. Every time I went another way, He walked with me ready to have a conversation at any given moment so when I came to the end of me, myself, and more of me-and finally cried out, He would take my hand and pull me close. He would whisper in my ear and say, “I love you and know exactly who you are and will be,” as he wipes my tears, gently brushes my hair behind my ears, perfectly tickles my back, and squeezes me tight.
I want you to hear something. I want you to hear that there is an enemy that so desperately wants you to believe you have to protect yourself in your own strength. Satan doesn’t want you to be vulnerable and deal with grief, anger, or weaknesses. He wants you to stay rooted in pride and bitterness and unbelief and despair.
I want you to know there is a true protector that will give you his thick skin. His name is Jesus and he offers his full armor in the shape of a man, a little like the priest’s ephod, like King Saul’s armor, like the thick skin of the muscadine—but these are only shadows compared to the only real protection we have in the reality of the Kingdom. The only real sweetness we can squeeze up with unlimited supply.
I do declare these words to you from the letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 6 Verses 10-20
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
Is wearied eyes,
Disappointment and disguise,
And chicken noodle soup,
Friends keeping me in the loop,
Holding me together so I look whole,
Feeling more like a leaky bowl,
Where the broth drips unto the pages of fresh ink prayers,
And I begin to like to forget all my cares,
That numbness and tired mornings,
Great is every task I am performing,
And heavy shoulders try and then give up,
Grief is dark and scary and this dreadful cup,
The road to Jerusalem,
The road to Nineveh,
Depending on the day,
I run the other way,
The taproot of bitterness digs in,
Until the Lord makes die my sin,
I grumble looking over to everyone else,
All the apparent ease, health, and wealth,
“Why did you set this race before me?”
“So you would talk to me like this, honest and free.”
“Why is it so hard? Do you call this a plan?”
“Because sin and discipline. I love you. I understand.”
“I just thought it might be nice to have a break.”
“I know, dear one, come to me, it’s never too late.”
“It feels like dying to face my helpless estate.”
“Yes, but only the feeling for I made very sure of that,
Repent and believe and your estate will be great,
For the joy set before me to prepare you a place,
I paid the price, and it is all grace.”
So I feel the feelings of grief,
And finally look to the face of my true Relief,
“I’d do it again, my beautiful one,
For you to know grief will be undone,
For you, to be with you, so fair and true,
For you to know me and to be truly you,
I am love, and I love you.”
PS You can listen to this episode here.