Several years ago my husband and I led a Small Group. For those of you who are part of a contemporary church, you probably already know what that is. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, it’s essentially a group of people that meet together on a regular basis and is, um, small.
The idea is that you do life together, in community. You share meals, you know each other’s kids, you study the Bible or a topic and, in theory, you put all your cards on the table with these people. Actually, the last thing on that list, “putting all your cards on the table”, is the ultimate goal. The other activities are important, but are intended to be catalysts for trust and familiarity so the cards can eventually make their way out of the box. It’s also the hardest, scariest part, and one that at which, I admit with sadness and regret, we were inept.
I don’t want to speak for my husband, but as a leader, I was definitely not at my “bottom” yet. I wasn’t openly broken enough. I still had many character defects that needed to be fed by being well-thought of. That means that if I wanted to maintain my good, nice, spiritual-girl reputation, I had to keep my sharing PG. Sometimes I even went all PG-13 on people just to test the waters. I mean, if people panic or push back on that, certainly my rated-R feelings or fears would send them running for the hills. So I kept myself in check. Sharing enough to relate but only conceptually, not in reality.
I used phrases like “I struggle with being patient with my toddlers,” instead of saying, “I’m so freakin’ tired and worn out that some days I wish I could just run away from home and just yesterday I screamed at my kids as I threw down 2 boxes of 24 ct. yogurt packets and they exploded all over my kitchen and living room and ceiling!'” And that’s a true confession, right there. So, even though the goal of a Small Group was to share our raw and exposed lives together, I prettied up my sharing to save-face.
I will never forget sitting with one of the girls from my “small” group. We had never hung out one-on-one before and I remember asking her how her marriage was doing. After being in said small group with both she and her husband for several months, she said, “Actually, we are thinking of getting a divorce.” And they did. Now, I am not blaming the group, or myself for this. But I most definitely take responsibility for creating an environment where, as a leader, I failed to model what it was to be open and vulnerable with my real problems. In my own marriage. In my own dark thoughts. In my doubting heart and ugly feelings.
I don’t know if sharing those things, those secrets that I kept to be a “good example” for others and maintain a certain reputation, would have helped them or their marriage. But I do know this: NOT sharing them harmed everyone, including me. It contributed to my living in denial and duplicity, and left no room for hope or inspiration that I should ever have relief or progress in defeating such flaws. My battles remained my own. They kept me lonely and helped no one. As a result, I lived in shame and fear of being found out (though I am sure, people around me suspected that I wasn’t perfect…). I also left no room for God to use my crap and redeem it by giving courage, strength and hope to someone else who might need to know that they are not the only one.
My sister recommended a book to me by Glennon Doyle Melton called Love Warrior. Many of you have probably read it. I cannot get past this one paragraph. It convicts me to the core and reminds me:
God’s plan for me is to bring myself to the table. Not my “representative.” Not someone who acts as a substitute for the real deal. Not someone who just plays the part. He can only work through the true, authentic, broken me. The actual me. Not someone who just “represents” me in a poised, well-versed manner.
Glennon says this about her relationships friends and people she has known for years: “We’ve spent our time together talking about everything but what matters. We’ve never brought to each other the heavy things we were meant to help each other carry. We’ve only introduced each other to our representatives, while our real selves tried to live life alone. We thought that was safer. We thought that this way our real selves wouldn’t get hurt…It becomes clear that we are all hurting anyway.”
I am not thrilled that some 15 years after my Small Group leadership career has ended, l can say that I have been through the ringer with pain and loss and grief and addictions and cancer, but I also can’t say that I regret what God has done in me as a result. Like the Velveteen Rabbit and Pinocchio, I finally became REAL. Able to be ever-so-slightly vulnerable. On most days (when I am emotionally and spiritually aware and healthy), I care more about how my story can be used for good than what you think about me as a result of hearing it. I devote significant time and self-talk and prayer to reminding myself of how to bring the inside-me to the outside (as Glennon puts it) and avoid sending a “representative” in my place. This is my living amends for the years of trying to be “shiny” on the outside and withholding the “shattered” on the inside.
Lord—give us courage to be ourselves.