Steam & shame: Unexpected gospel lessons in a 200 degree room

“My girls want me to “steam” with them today. AKA how people in the villages traditionally bathe. Together. In a 200-something-degree room. Did I mention: Together. As in: With. Other. People. Can we just talk about the fact that Jesus is pushing on ALL of my insecurities in Alaska?! I didn’t sign up for this. Help.”

While I understand that discussing public bathing may be running the risk of over sharing here, I beg you to stick with me…

You see, I sent that text message to friend back in Colorado last fall on the afternoon I was introduced to the “maqii” (or steam).

One of my sweet Native friends, Yvette, had come to TLC the week before to present for our Native culture night. She spoke to two very different groups within the ten or so of us seated around the table:

To my native students, she explained the intricacies and traditions of her people, the Dena’ina— a people group with incredibly similar customs to my Yup’ik and Aleut students. She told them the legends that her grandmother had told her—legends involving the ‘powers’ of bears and eagles and other wild creatures that are so intertwined with almost every aspect of Native culture. She told stories about growing up in the nearby village of Nondalton, as well as tales of the family legacy she carries on by drying and canning hundreds of salmon every summer and butchering moose in the fall. I sat at the end of the table and watched as the students I was just getting to know shook their heads and smiled their sweet, shy smiles of understanding and agreement as she spoke.

Then to those of us Alaskan newbs, she explained everything from Akutaq (Native “ice cream” consisting of frozen berries, fish, Crisco, and sugar), to what a normal day would look like for someone living in a traditional village. I leaned back in my chair, drinking in everything she said.

nativeculturenight
Yvette with the 2015-2016 TLC students

“Where I come from, and when I was growing up, all of the women and all of the men of a family would bathe with their respective genders, together in a steam bath.”

She paused to laugh at my awkwardness as I nearly fell sideways out of my chair from shock, then embarrassment.

“When I tell non-Natives that, I get really uncomfortable or horrified looks… kinda like the way Kacy’s looking at me.”

All of my students immediately glanced my way and smirked as I turned a shade of red I thought was impossible for Mexicans to turn. Thankfully Yvette let me off the hook and quickly continued on.

“The steam was a place of vulnerability—where the elder women would talk amongst themselves or pass down knowledge to younger girls. There wasn’t a single topic that was shameful or off-limits in the steam; that was how we were raised. But I’ve noticed that something has changed in the generations that have come after mine.

The younger women, they don’t want to steam with the older women any more. They find it more awkward and less of a part of our culture. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that young women have more pressure these days to be or look a certain way… And just like they don’t steam with the older women, the girls don’t talk to the older women the way we used to when we were kids. There’s a disconnect within our people between the generations. There is a segregation because of shame.

Our young women don’t feel comfortable in their own skin. They don’t feel comfortable enough with who they are (or aren’t) to ask the hard questions of life or receive the potentially uncomfortable wisdom of an elder. It makes me sad to see the way shame is stealing our people.”

As I processed Yvette’s words within the “honor-versus-shame” Native culture of TLC, my perspective and definition of shame began to shift. Over time I came to realize that at its core shame is a deep-seeded feeling of not being good enough, a feeling that proceeds to tell us that we are defined by our lack, rather than our bounty and beauty in Christ. A feeling that the enemy uses to steal our identities in Christ and lead us away from the Lord.

Whether we are willing to admit it or not, we all struggle with feelings of not being good enough, smart enough, thin enough, x-y-z enough everyday.

Some of this shame and our wrestle with “enough-ness” stems directly from lies that we’ve been told by our instantly photoshop-able culture. There’s an influx of subliminal messages about “health” standards (physical, mental, spiritual, or otherwise) nearly everywhere we look and the temptation to compare ourselves, then shame ourselves when we fall short of these often unrealistic standards can be all-consuming.

But there’s another type of shame—what many counselors would call “legitimate shame”.

This feeling stems from engaging in activities we know aren’t healthy for us, or don’t fall in line with our morals or beliefs about who God is or who we’ve been created to be, then falling prey to hopelessness when we contrast our imperfections and shortcomings with a perfect God.

We all wrestle with shame (“legitimate” or otherwise) due to our sin and imperfect, fallen decision making and that of others. But, despite what the world or the one trying to destroy us may try to lead us to believe, Yvette’s poignant words have been a constant reminder that to me that as believers we don’t need to sit isolated in either of these types of shame.

Yes, as Romans 3:23 tells us, “we’ve all fallen short of the glory of God” because we’re sinners, but what I constantly need to remind myself is that the Gospel doesn’t end there.

Within our wrestle with sin and shame we have two choices:

1) We can allow our sin, shame, and fears to define and confine us

OR

2) We can trust that Jesus is who He says He is– the loving Savior of the world, sent to reunite us with our Heavenly Father– and trust in the grace He freely offered us on the cross while we were still messy and broken, drowning in the sin that rightfully shamed us. And by accepting, then living in His love, we can allow Him to loosen the bonds of shame that seek to keep us defined by our lack of perfection.

It’s easy (okay, easier) for me to express this a year, some perspective, and several steams after the fact, but as I sat around the TLC table, listening to Yvette speak about the cultural power of the steam bath and the bondage of shame last fall, I bristled internally and thought, There is nooooo wayyyyy I’m ever going to sit in a hot room, physically exposed for an hour, exposing the inmost fears and insecurities of my heart with other women. No. Way. After all, Jesus came so that I wouldn’t have to suffer through hell… and all of that sounds like my personal hell.

So, when my TLC girls asked me to steam with them last November, I’m fairly certain I made the same terrified face I’d made at Native culture night. “Suuuuuuuuure….” I hesitated, using all of my emotional energy to turn my grimace into a semi-excited smile. As my girls went to pack their bags for the steam, I immediately grabbed my phone and fired off the panicked text above to Kitty.

In that moment, the shame and insecurity I felt about my awkward, lanky body and my fearful heart being exposed was fighting to confine me and keep me separated from my girls and my new friend. This illegitimate shame based in insecurity had me sucked so far into my own brain that I couldn’t hear God gently telling me the same thing He’s told me everyday for the nine years I’ve walked with Him:

You are mine. You are loved. You are beautiful. I created you to be uniquely you. You are enough. Do you hear me? You are enough. You have nothing to be ashamed of. I have died for your sins. I have taken on your filth. You are clean. You are pure. You are my beloved bride. You are enough because of who I am.

And that is the truth that I am fighting tooth and nail to keep at the forefront of my mind these days.

Because the truth is we need not be ashamed of exposure and vulnerability– not before God and not before one another– because Christ has seen the depths of our sinful hearts and yet in His infinite love for us He still took on the weight of our sin and died, abolishing the line between us and God that allowed for sin and shame’s power to confine us.

So, brothers and sisters, whatever shame you are fighting today, “legitimate” or otherwise, may you know that in it you are unconditionally loved. May you know in the marrow of your bones that your sin is not what defines you if you have invited Christ to wash you white as snow. 

Your mess is His, and if I may be so bold, your mess can be mine too. You are I are both imperfect and insecure, my dear. We’re in this battle together.

And in that, may we be a generation of Christians who believe so strongly in the redemptive power of Christ that we offer our hearts and minds completely to Him, allowing Him to break the segregation and confines of shame in our lives. May we sit with each other over coffee (or in 200-something degree rooms) and confess our imperfections and insecurities, reveling in the fact that we, the beloved ones of a perfect God, have already been washed clean.

 

Advertisements

Adoption changes everything

“You must be so strong.”

“Adoption is the most selfless thing you could have done, you know, given the circumstances.”

“I can’t even imagine how hard that had to have been, even though they weren’t your biological kids.”

People say these words when they hear our story– the story of how we gave up lost …whatever happened with my godkids four years.

I don’t tell the story often because if you look at my life today, you probably wouldn’t guess that things used to be entirely different.

I also don’t tell our story often because unlike the people who try to console me, I simply don’t have words.

As a writer it’s frustrating when you can’t come up with flowery words for something you want to describe in detail, or when you can’t even think of a metaphor for the situation when you want to be more discrete.

There is no way I could ever describe the way my stomach churns every time I wonder if I made the right decision, testifying that my babies were better off in a home full of strangers than with the people they grew up calling their family.

There is no way I could explain the splintered feeling I get deep in my being whenever someone tosses a “you’re so strong” my way in regards to the adoption, and all I want to do is scream,NO, I’M NOT!! I’m a freaking mess over here. I just want my kids back.”

There are no words that even get close to expressing the feeling I experienced four years ago when I handed our case worker the brown paper bag containing Mary Ray’s 6th birthday presents– presents that she likely unwrapped in a family visitation room while she sat, confused and terrified, with her 2 year old little brother waiting to be placed in a foster home, just hours after the judge ruled that they would not be returning to the home they knew.

There is no synonym for brokenness or pain like that. 

I don’t have words that accurately describe the way that pain grips my heart when I think about someone else tucking my sweet Mary Ray into bed at night, let alone tonight, on the eve of her 10th birthday.

As I sit here and ruminate on the “selfless” aspect of adoption, all that crosses my mind is how selfish I really am– How desperately I want to know what my babies’ lives look like today, no matter the cost…

On days like today, the only words that come to mind, come in the form of questions:

Did they get goodnight kisses? Did their new mommy or daddy read them a bedtime story? Are they eating their vegetables? Does someone sing to them from the front seat of the car on the way home from school?

Do they know how desperately I long to read them stories from the Bible each night? Do they know their worth? Do they love Jesus? Do they know that Jesus loves them? Do they know that I love them?!

Do they even remember me?

Does Mary Ray remember the Build-A-Bear that was in that brown bag four years ago? Has she ever looked at its tag and read my phone number, wondering whose it was and why it was there?

I don’t know… And I may never know on this side of Heaven.

All that I do know, all that I cling to within this situation– this never ending battle with my selfish and broken momma heart– is Jesus.

Over the last four years of birthdays and Christmases, first and last days of school, and all the ordinary days in between, Jesus has been teaching me what adoption really is.

Yes, adoption involves pain because for there to be a need for adoption, there has to be a lack of something else– a lack of someone to be there to take care of you.

But adoption is so much more than the pain. Adoption is a display of Supreme Love because adoption was created by God Himself.

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Holy Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:14-19)

God understands the pain of those learning how to come to terms with earthly adoption; He gave up His Son, that we might have perfect union with Himself. He understands what it is to turn His face from His Son, for His good and the good of all man kind.

As my students make fun of me for saying, “Jesus knows, child.”

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

And just like I struggle to find words to tell the story of the two little humans who shaped me the most, there aren’t words for the type of beauty or grace that is found at the throne of God. There simply aren’t…

So while my heart grieves and I kneel before the throne, begging for my babies to know that they are loved by me if by no one else on earth, He has brought me to a new place this year. A place where I can cry out just one simple prayer:

“Lord, this year on her birthday, let my sweet baby girl know that she has been adopted by the most beautiful and glorious Father in the universe. For every ounce of my love for my babies fails in comparison to the ocean that is Yours.”

sweet

Happy 10th birthday sweet girl. I la-la-la-love you, no matter how many miles there are between us.

Jesus, smooth jazz, & tiny humans

I had a music professor in college who always said, “Life is like smooth jazz– it always doubles back when you least expect it.”

This school year, I feel like I’m getting a hearty dose of this lovely life lesson.

Three years ago when I moved to the West Campus of the Denver Street School, I couldn’t have been less excited about where God had placed me.

All summer that year I had prayed and prayed, begging God to open a paid job for me at the school… and when He finally did, it was in the last place I wanted to work– the school nursery.

Seeing as I was finishing up my English degree and starting my teaching licensure classes, I wanted a position where I would work with high school students. I had spent the last two years student teaching English at the East Campus and part of me wanted the familiarity of teaching a similar age group.

But part of me– the deeply wounded and prideful part of me– didn’t want to deal with preschoolers and babies because holding and loving babies who weren’t mine was just too painful.

At the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year, I was still broken-hearted from losing custody of my two beautiful god-children less than a year before.

I (the girl who had spent the last six years doting on the beautiful children God had placed in my life) spent the majority of my time trying to get away from children. I didn’t hold my friends’ newborns. I didn’t attend baby showers or birthdays. I just didn’t want to be near babies or kids.

So when God opened a door for a nursery job, I nearly slammed the door right back in His face… but I knew I couldn’t. The only few logical brain cells I had left, pushed me to accept the job and walk into my tiny classroom everyday.

But I was bitter. Oh, was I bitter…

I didn’t want to hold, or rock, or nurture someone elses’ babies.

I wanted mine. My babies. My tiny dysfunctional family.

So everyday that first quarter, as I rocked the babies to sleep in the nursery, I argued with God.

This isn’t fair.

How on earth could you do this to me?

How could you take my babies and give me this stupid job?

Why couldn’t you make this easier on me?

Do you just enjoy watching me squirm, God?!

What. The. Actual. Heck.

To put the icing on my bitter-pitty-party cake, it seemed that Romans 8:28 continuously came up in every Christian setting I entered. Sunday morning sermons. Staff devotions. Bible studies. Coffee dates with friends. Coffee mugs. They all read,

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

Every time I heard this truth, I would mentally retort, “There’s no way you could ever make this ‘good’, God. Nothing will ever heal this. Nothing could fix this much brokenness/anger/sadness/[insert the emotion of the day here].”

Yet He met my challenge.

Maybe not right away… but He did it…

Fast forward a year and a half:

By this point, I was no longer the nursery worker at the West Campus. Instead, a year and a half later, I was the cooking teacher. [Have I ever mentioned that God seriously has a sense of humor? If you’ve seen me cook (or catch things on fire while trying to cook) you understand what I’m getting at here…]

On the last day of third quarter, I was packing my bag of teacher tricks and preparing to leave for a much needed spring break when a very distraught student slammed out of the science room across the hall, ran past me, down the hall, down the stairs, and out the front door of the school.

Being the notoriously nosy teacher that I am, I left my bag in the hallway and followed her out the front door of the school. By the time I found her, she was sitting in the middle of a parking space in the front parking lot, sobbing.

For a while, I simply sat next to her, staring ahead at the road, neither of us saying a word. After maybe five minutes of her working to catch her breath, disjointed phrases started pouring out of her mouth.

“I failed science. I’m a failure. I’m never going to graduate. I need to graduate but I’m never going to. How did this happen? How could I let this happen?”

I tried to console her, explaining that failing classes happens sometimes… until I saw her shaking her head through fresh tears and I realized that we weren’t just talking about a science credit anymore.

“I’m five months pregnant, Miss… I’m scared. I need to graduate, but now it might not happen. And I don’t know what to do. Do I put the baby up for adoption? Do I keep her? How do I raise a baby if I can’t even pass science?”

Her words washed over me like a tidal wave.

That feeling.

I knew that feeling all too well. The questioning, the fear, the gut-wrenching pain that accompanies thoughts of putting a child up for adoption…

“I don’t know darlin’. But I promise we’ll figure it out, together. I have some stories I can tell you sometime, but for today let’s get you home to rest. We can figure out graduation and school another day…”

In the weeks and months that followed, we went out to lunch several times. We talked about adoption and my experiences with that whole process. We talked about what it would look like for her to keep the baby. We talked a lot, and we cried a lot too.

Ultimately, even though she knew that it was going to be hard, she decided to keep the baby.

And if we were to hit fast forward another year and a half, you would see that beautiful baby girl toddling around my living room right now as I switch between writing this post and making up lesson plans for my preschool class…Yupp, you guessed it– at the West Campus of the Denver Street School.

In so many ways, life has brought me back to where I was three, four, even five years ago.

Once again, I am teaching preschool– something that I laugh about to myself regularly. Once again, I am caring for a beautiful baby girl who isn’t mine, but whom I couldn’t possibly love more.

God, in his graciousness has used this beautiful baby girl and her momma to heal so many deep wounds in my soul that were created when I had to say goodbye to the two loves of my life nearly four years ago.

It has been a long loop, but because of the healing that He has provided through these two, I walk into my classroom everyday, pick up my goofy, tiny students, and I smile.

My heart is no longer consumed by bitterness because God has shown me how He can take even the most desolate times in my life and use them for His Kingdom– His good, as Romans 8:28 continues to remind me today.

I never thought that losing my godkids could be something that God would use for His good, but He has. Because of the pain of that experience, I was able to speak light into Megan’s darkness and fear in that parking lot. Because of that one conversation, Megan and I have formed an amazing relationship that has endured late night phone calls and cranky-pre-coffee morning bickering. We’ve sat in the NICU together, cried on futons while eating popsicles together, had late night homework sessions on the phone, and I am incredibly honored to say that I was able to be one of the women who spoke at her graduation three months ago.

God is continuously using Megan and little Hailey to show me His goodness and His plans for redemption.

Just like He didn’t leave me in my brokenness, He isn’t leaving my girls “out to dry” either. Not only did Megan graduate high school, but God has provided the opportunity for her to go to college and pursue her dreams of becoming an English professor, and I couldn’t be more proud of the way that she is learning to trust in Him and chase her dreams.

And me? No, I might not have my little ones with me right now, but I have the privilege of nannying Megan’s joy-filled daughter and watching her grow up one day at a time, right here in my living room…

Yes, there are days when we are all so exhausted we could cry, but there are also days when this goofy child makes us laugh so hard that our stomachs hurt. It might not be a perfect situation by the world’s standards, but today it feels perfect to me because I know that this is exactly where the three of us are supposed to be– trying to figure out life, together.

Brothers and sisters, if you are going through something so painful and dark that you don’t believe it will ever be fruitful or good, take heart, for He truly does work things out for the good of those who love Him.

Our God is a God who loves smooth jazz, and I firmly believe that it is He who loops life around us, time and time again until He has allowed our wounds to be healed and our hearts to be His.

HaileyJane

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For when we do not know what to pray for as we ought, the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And He who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

(Romans 8:26-28)