Salvation is in the Sinking: The Forgotten Art of Lament

 

 

Two Losses

Sheryl Sandberg recently gave a commencement speech at my alma mater, UC Berkeley, where she shared publically for the first time of her husband’s sudden death a year ago. I wept with her as she described her “deep fog of grief,” laughed at the inside jokes that only Cal students would understand, and was inspired by the lessons she had learned about resilience, joy, and gratitude through her heartbreaking experience.

“I learned about the depths of sadness and the brutality of loss. But I also learned that when life sucks you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again. I learned that in the face of the void —or in the face of any challenge—you can choose joy and meaning.”

A few months earlier, another speech about the loss of a spouse had come across my Facebook feed. It was Monty Williams, the Oklahoma City Thunder Assistant Coach, giving a eulogy for his wife who had tragically died from a head-on car collision. Justin Taylor of The Gospel Coalition held Williams up as an example of “God-centered hope.” Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, called the eulogy “profound, sincere and supernatural.”  Many commented with admiration for his strong Christian faith and call to forgiveness.

But I couldn’t help but feel disconsolate when I watched it.

As someone who had also experienced overwhelming loss (which I share about here), I felt more unease than comfort at his words. I wasn’t quite sure why at first. But the more I mulled, the more I realized why I found his eulogy disconcerting:

He didn’t show any grief.

He shed no tears. His voice never cracked. He never had to pause to contain his emotions.  He acknowledged his pain (parenthetically), but quickly qualified it by saying that God was good and everything would work out.

He never let me into his pain.

Unlike Sheryl Sandberg’s speech in which I was invited to share in her vulnerability and grief, Monty Williams’ words left me feeling in awe of his strength and faith, but disconnected from his humanity.

I’m not saying that he was insincere. In fact, I honor his story as a beautiful expression of trust and grace. But I take issue when this one expression is upheld by the Church as the yardstick for a faithful Christian response to suffering. I am troubled by how this message could heap shame, condemnation, and expectations upon those who are already burdened down with grief.  I feel saddened when his optimism serves to alienate those who have experienced their own catastrophic loss rather than welcoming them to mourn honestly.

Faith in the midst of grief does not just include hope.  It also includes lament.

We forget that we, who “do not grieve as others who have no hope,” (1 Thessalonians 4:13),

Still must grieve.

David lamented. Job protested. Mary and Martha questioned. Even Jesus felt forsaken.

Yet we as Christians make little room for stories of lament, doubt, and wrestling.

 

Salvation is in the Sinking

Too many of us are trying to keep our heads above water in the midst of grief. We’re dog paddling with all our might to stay above the murky darkness beneath us.

We speak of hope,

slap a high five,

sing our Hallelujahs.

And all the while, we are slowly drowning.

What would happen if we actually let ourselves sink down into the depths of sorrow?

You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.

What would happen if we let the grief wash over us and overtake us?

Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves…

What would happen if we questioned and blamed the Lord?

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me?

What would happen if we voiced our fear and named our pain instead of trying to escape it?

 Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless.

~ Psalm 88:6,7,14,15

I believe that when we lament, we are doing the very thing God wants us to do:

Be our true selves.

He wants our raw emotions more than our quoted scriptures. He delights in our broken spirit more than our religious works. He welcomes our weakness more than our show of strength.

In my own experience of loss, I have found that it was in my weakness that I discovered true grace.

It was in my sinking that I discovered real salvation. 

For it was only by surrendering to the overwhelming waters of my grief that I could “kick against the bottom, break the surface, and breathe again.”

 

 

The Naked Church Experiment

I grew up in a traditional Asian household where attitudes towards our bodies were ones of modesty and propriety. To top it off, I was a conservative Christian…and a pastor’s kid. Needless to say, I rarely left the house revealing anything between my chin and knees.

When I had a family of my own and both my boys were done nursing, I simply did what I had grown up doing all my life:

I concealed my body.

I shooed my sons out when they walked in on me showering, locked the door when I changed, and generally covered myself up so there was no evidence of my female anatomy.  Because that is what good Christian moms do to teach their sons about modesty and purity, right?

The Hypothesis

Then it slowly dawned on me that my puritanical views about nudity and modesty actually serve to oversexualize women’s bodies instead of normalize them.

Translation?

Keeping my body hidden actually perpetuates the idea that nudity is inherently sexual and shameful.  Instead of seeing my body as something astonishing and honorable, I hide away certain parts for fear of the sexual arousal it might cause someone else.

America is a place where an exposed side boob of a breastfeeding mom is deemed inappropriate. But the East Asian culture I live in thinks nothing of mothers nursing their babies uncovered in the middle of a busy train station.

In America, a plunging neckline or a bared midriff are seen as invitations to ogle. But in many indigenous cultures where nakedness is the norm, people can freely go about their business without the constant need to take cold showers.

Why is this?

Perhaps this ridiculous sexual reductionism in American culture is due partly to overexposure to sexualized and exploitative images.

But I think it’s also partly due to not enough exposure to normal, everyday nudity.

     Nudity that reveals normal bodies, not just airbrushed ones.            

     Nudity that is seen doing normal things, not just performing sexual acts.

     Nudity that humanizes instead of objectifies.

In order to compete with the steady diet of oversexualized images that will be fed to my sons throughout their lives, maybe what I need to do is provide them with more opportunities to practice noticing the whole person instead of just the body.

Instead of telling my sons to look away, maybe I needed to teach them,

     Look a few inches higher, into her eyes.

     Look closer, at her story.

     Look deeper, at her heart.

The Experiment

Armed with this newfound conviction that more healthy exposure to nudity was good for my boys, I now had to decide what to do. After years of averting my boys’ eyes from pictures of mermaids and nude artwork, I knew something drastic had to be done so they would not end up becoming cat-calling, porn-addicted sexual aggressors. And after decades of covering myself up, I knew I needed something a little more contrived to help me get over my own prudish tendencies.

Desperate times called for desperate measures.

That’s how I came up with the ingenious idea of having Naked Church.

At home.

Just our family.

In our underwear.

(This is as risque as it gets for me. I am, after all, an Asian Christian whose dad is a pastor.)

It was an experiment of sorts. To see what would happen when my boys were exposed to a woman’s bare body in a nonsexual way. To normalize the female form and teach honor and dignity. To associate the body with the person.

We announced the idea to our boys and they were surprisingly game, my youngest even making a “Naked Church” sign.  Thankfully, without any pictures.

We all stripped down to our underwear and giggled at each other. The boys were used to running around in the nude at home, but they were not used to seeing me in all my fleshy glory. I wasn’t used to it either, and self-consciously covered myself up with a sofa cushion.

Then I remembered the whole point of this experiment: To have them see the reality of a normal woman’s body.

So I laid the cushion aside and tried to resist the temptation to suck in my generous gut.

As my husband strummed away on the guitar in his boxer briefs, I noticed one of my sons sneaking a peek at my teal panties, wondering if he would see anything interesting.

In the middle of our last song, both boys came over to me and started drumming on my breasts like they were a set of bongos, keeping time to the beat.

Didn’t they know I was trying to teach them about respecting women’s bodies instead of using them simply for their own amusement or pleasure?!

Sigh.

The Conclusion

All in all, I thought it turned out to be a successful experiment.

It helped me get past some of my own awkwardness and self-consciousness, becoming more comfortable with revealing my body.

It also revealed how my boys’ unfamiliarity with female nudity actually seemed to lead to more fascination and objectification. Naked Church was a first step in remedying this by normalizing our bodies in a nonsexual context.

An unexpected opportunity also presented itself when they began pounding on my chest. What started out as playful innocence became a teachable moment for them to learn about consent and boundaries. I firmly told them to stop and removed their hands when they didn’t.

Hopefully, with continued healthy exposure and more training, they will gain the understanding that another person’s body is not something to be crudely used or exploited for their own desires, but a sacred dwelling of a person who deserves dignity and respect.

The Follow-up

Since the Naked Church Experiment, I’ve started to purposely keep the door open when I undress. I try not to freak out or cover up when the boys see me in the shower. I talk more candidly about our bodies and sexuality.

It’s a good start. But there’s still a long way to go.

Next up…

Family Strip Poker Night!

The World is Singing. Come Join the Choir.

I have resisted jumping on the blogging bandwagon for awhile.

It just seemed so loud out there already. Like everybody was talking but nobody was listening.  And much of the clamor seemed hollow, discordant, and jarring.  Did I really want to add to the noise?

But then, God reframed it for me.

The world is singing.

Can you hear it?

I started listening more closely. I noticed not only the playful trills of the light-hearted, but the minor keys of those in pain.  I bobbed my head to the anthems of the inspirational, and became disquieted by the rage-filled rap of the activist.  I heard the syncopation of the unconventional thinkers, and the hum of the spiritual seekers. And it wasn’t just noise anymore.

It was music.  It was a beautiful, messy ode to life. 

Then God gave me an invitation.

The world is singing. Come, join the choir.

I need your voice.

Your truth.

Your story.

Come. Belong.

                           The world is singing. Come join the choir.

 

So… here I am adding my voice to the choir. Allowing myself to be known and heard. Finding the courage to tell the truth about me and sing it out.

Especially the truths that don’t fit the boxes, the ideas that challenge conventional wisdom, and the stories that point more towards God’s grace than towards my own triumphs.

I do so with the growing confidence that I have a unique song to sing and an irreplaceable part to play as a member of this chorus. I also believe the same is true of you.

I belong. You belong.

Come, let us join the choir together.