I am delighted to welcome Liz Carter to my blog, as she continues the ‘Unmasked: stories of authenticity’ series. This will be the last post before I take a little break for the holidays – but will be continuing with this series in the New Year. Liz is incredibly honest here and I resonated with a lot of what she shared, including the pressure felt as a pastor’s wife and also feeling the need to learn to lament well…
‘How do you feel now?’
I stand there, my head bowed, my body stiff as I contain the pain raging inside. What do I say?
‘Are you feeling better?’
I bite down on my lip. ‘A little, yes, thank you.’
But inside I am berating myself. That’s not true, is it? I don’t feel a little better at all. If anything, I feel worse, the pain made somehow more obvious by the prayer. I feel just that bit smaller, that bit more invisible, the real me hiding behind the reality that once again, I am not healed. Once again, I have let somebody down, someone who wanted to pray with me, to see me set free from the pain which holds me in fierce bonds.
You see, this is my mask. This is the face I put on. It’s the face I have put on all my life, growing up with a degenerative lung disease. And it’s the face I sometimes put on with God, too.
It’s the ‘I’m fine’ face. It’s the words I say when folk ask me if I am better yet, the smile I smile when people tell me I look so well. It’s the false mask of pretence; a way to escape being too real, because sometimes it’s just too hard. Too exhausting to reveal my inner self with all its pain and loneliness, enclosed in a body which keeps me caged from the world for so much of the time. So instead of sharing my unmasked self, I nod. I smile. I’m fine, thank you.
Somewhere along the way, I learned to hide my feelings. Growing up with this disease meant that I had to put a mask on every day, to face the world, to be a person who deserved a place in the world. If I took my mask off, I thought I was showing that I wasn’t good enough, after all. That I was too weak and helpless. Too pathetic to be of use, because my body always let me down. The easiest way was to hide the fact that I was in pain. To pretend that all was well.
I started doing this in church, as well. I thought that people didn’t want to hear that I had another infection or felt too exhausted to go out of my house or that pleurisy was racking me yet again. I thought that I wasn’t displaying God’s power at work in my life if I was sick. I thought people wanted to hear bright and positive stuff.
But I was wrong.
People long to see authenticity
They yearn to see people being more honest, more open about their struggles. And when I share what I am really feeling, how I am struggling, then that brings me to a better place, as well. A place where I don’t have to pretend, anymore, a place where I don’t have to be lonely in my pain, because others have taken some of it and held it along with me.
Unmasking is scary. It’s risky. It doesn’t always go down so well, either. There have been the times I’ve tried to be more real with folk and they haven’t wanted to know. The shutters have come down, the glances over my shoulder more marked, the barriers erected. The platitudes start: ‘I’m sure you’ll be better soon.’ ‘You just need a bit of fresh air/exercise/aloe vera.’ Some people don’t want to be faced with the reality of my pain.
But there are actually far fewer of these people than I once told myself. Once upon a time, I felt I could only be open with my closest friends and family. Now, I’ve found that saying how I really feel can open conversations in the most wonderful way. I was talking to a lovely lady the other day – I don’t know her very well, so was all ready to say ‘fine, thanks,’ when the question came. But I caught myself, and told her that I was feeling fairly broken, actually, and that this year had been really bad for me, with multiple infections and a hospital admission. Instead of the conversation continuing on the superficial level it had started with, it got deep quickly, because this lady was released to speak about stuff going on for her, too. My decision to be real meant a much more profound connection. A healing conversation.
The perfect parson’s wife
I’m especially aware of this as a vicar’s wife. Perhaps there’s a script running somewhere in my mind telling me what a vicar’s wife should look like and act like, something which says that a vicar’s wife is always impeccably presented, and coolly calm and confident. I couldn’t possibly show folk who I really am, because that wouldn’t be appropriate.
I know that script is really a load of rubbish. It’s an archaic leftover of old novels I’ve read featuring distant and collected parson’s wives (we’re talking Austen and Bronte here.) It’s nothing like the reality of living life with honesty and integrity – which leads to messiness.
But messy is good. Messy is important, and real. Standing in coffee time after church with tears running down my cheeks means an unmasking which gives others permission to give of themselves, too. It means a sharing of lives marred with brokenness, an honesty about suffering which still crushes us, an authenticity about those times we just don’t get it.
Because a life lived with God does not mean a life lived without pain. And if we can learn to be honest about the pain then we can reach out to each other so much more. We can listen to one another and make the world a less lonely place, even if for only a moment or two. We can reach out and catch hold of the work of the Spirit among us as God brings healing through our willingness to open ourselves up. Even when it hurts.
We’re allowed to shout at God
I’ve had to go through a journey of being real with God, as well as with others. I got too good at pretending that everything was fine. That I didn’t mind when others were healed and I wasn’t, that I was good with it, that it was okay because I wanted those people to be happy. I told God that I was fine with my sick body if that was who I was supposed to be. I plastered a grin on my face and carried on.
Some of this was authentic. I found joy in worship, and felt that I had come to a place of acceptance of where I was. I’d lived with it forever, after all, so had known no other way, so perhaps it was easier for me than for others who suddenly get sick or become disabled. God was so much more than my feelings, and I found that I could take hold of contentment in God’s presence rather than in my circumstances.
But in all of this, I forgot to actually acknowledge my feelings.
I forgot that it is important to tell God how we feel.
I forgot about lament.
The Bible is an incredible model of how to be authentic. Right through all the books, we see broken people responding to God from out of their brokenness. We see people shouting at God, moaning, weeping, screaming. We see people battering their fists into God’s chest.
We even see Jesus in the deepest grief, sweating drops of blood as He asks God to take this great burden away from him. We see in Jesus’ desperation the most profound authenticity, an honesty not afraid to express His fears and His pain, while always saying Yet not my will. Yet not my will, but yours be done. Jesus had no need to put on a mask before His Father, no need to say that He was fine thank you, that He was really okay with what He knew He had to do.
Because He really wasn’t okay. He was sweating blood.
In the psalms, the writers so often share their brokenness in the most raw words, ragged and haunting poetry which expresses their pain. How long, O Lord, how long?… Why, my soul, are you so downcast?… Do not hide your face from me! The writers don’t hold back from God, because they know that God can take their grief and their shame, their agony and their hatred. They give us a model for how we can be genuine in our prayers. How we can share the depths of our hearts with God, even when those depths are so very dark, because there is no darkness that cannot be lit up with God’s dazzling light. Those psalmists always move on from laying out their brokenness to trusting in God, even when things look bleak. And it’s in their active decisions to remember God’s work in their life and to praise God anyway that they find their healing, that they find their mourning turned to dancing and their lives lifted from the pit.
Their unmasking leads to their healing.
This is my experience, too. Pretending does nothing, before God and before people, because pretending leads to superficiality, and there is little point to that. Honesty – even in all its raw brutality – does so much more. It lays bare truth and its vulnerability speaks to battered hearts and crushed lives.
‘Are you feeling better, now?’ the person praying asks of me.
I begin to speak, but stop myself for a second.
‘I’m still in pain. So much pain. Why can’t God take my pain away?’
And we weep together. We weep in the waiting and in the brokenness, but our weeping is seasoned with hope, the hope we both know, the reason we keep on asking.
The hope that will never let us go.
Liz lives in Shropshire with her Rev. other half and two teens. She loves writing more than most other things and blogs here. Her Bible study book about Beauty and the Beast is available here or you can get an e-copy for free on her blog. Liz’s first book is about contentment living in a broken world and will be published by IVP in 2018.