I love hearing testimonies of the saints and often find myself wishing they were a more regular part of corporate worship in churches. Recently I was pretty excited when City Reformed in Pittsburgh asked me to share how God has worked in my life. Hearing people’s stories is always a great encouragement to me, so it was touching to (hopefully) encourage others with my own. I ended up being pretty nervous - it's not easy to be vulnerable about personal experiences in front of a church. But the chance it gave me to really reflect on God’s work in my life, having to process and articulate it, was invaluable. I’ve been doing a lot of that this past year – processing God’s work in my life – so I’ve decided to share some of my processing here on the blog. I’ll start today with the testimony I shared in church.
It might be obvious, but trying to sum up a lifetime of God’s work in my heart is really difficult. As I’ve thought about it over the past few days, though, I think it comes down to two significant things. First, my will. And second, my identity.
I’ve always been a very strong willed person, and while this can really be a great asset in life, it also means that I can often find myself in conflict with others. A lot of my memories from growing up involve fights and debates, not only with my parents, but also with my siblings and friends. Simply put, I don’t naturally like having to submit to a will that I disagree with.
I never really connected this aspect of myself with my spiritual life until I was eighteen, though. I grew up in a believing home and thankfully I had a lot of wise people around me with whom I could discuss my more intellectual questions about the gospel. By the time I finished high school, I remember that most of my big questions about the meaning and reliability of the gospel message had been answered. So instead of struggling with doubt, I came to a point of struggling with the call to submit to Christ.
I distinctly remember lying in my bed one night not too long after turning eighteen and realizing that I had no doubt about the truth of scripture and the truth of the gospel, but for the first time admitting to myself that I hated God. I simply just didn’t like the idea of needing to submit my life and my will to something above me. But admitting this to myself really terrified me. Because I didn’t doubt the reality of God or the truth of scripture, I knew that willfully rejecting God was an honest choice of damnation, and I didn’t really want to be damned.
After arriving at this conundrum that night, I spent one of the longest and most “emo” weeks of my life basically just sitting around on empty park benches trying to puzzle out this battle between my will and what I knew to be true. But if you ever find yourself going through a midnight of the soul like I did, don’t expect any sudden revelations or blinding light moments. It took me a long, slow year of processing to ultimately work through this conflict.
But by the end of that first week, I had arrived at a few conclusions at least. Most importantly, I realized that because God’s will is bigger than mine, he would have to choose to let go of me in order for me to really escape him; but, from what I knew from scripture, it didn’t seem like he would do that. I had a vision that God’s will kept me in his hands. I could shake my fist at him and I was free to express my anger, but I could not just loose myself of his grasp unless he desired to let me do so. My will was beat. I could now start the process of learning about and learning to love the God whose will would always be stronger than my own, and I consider that time my real spiritual rebirth.
The second main work God has done in my life involves my sense of identity. Beginning in my childhood, I have moved nine times across three continents. This may sound exciting, but I have always desired a sense of belonging and home. I think for some people, so much transition is pretty easy; but, for me it has brought about a lot of deep rooted struggles that are often expressed in the dual needs to belong and to prove myself.
These two issues came to a head, though, when I moved to China in my mid twenties to work for a campus ministry and within six months of arriving, I found myself so sick that I couldn't get out of bed for about half of every month. I eventually discovered that I was suffering from asthma, but all I knew for many months was that I had gone from being a successful student and worker in the US to what pretty much felt like failing as a missionary. To make matters worse, I was in a strange country and struggling to build community. My sense of identity was challenged to the core as both my feelings of belonging and my ability to prove myself were taken away from me.
But amazingly, that time was the closest I have ever been to the Lord. Having all of my supports taken away from me forced me to fully lean on Christ for my sense of self. All of the worldly things that usually shape my identity were gone, but I didn’t lose myself because I discovered that as a child of God, my identity is ultimately in him. I could lose everything while far from home and still be ok because I was at home in my identity in Christ.
I tend over analyze most things, but these two ways that God has worked in my life are not simply in my head. They have had serious practical results, namely, that I am a less contentious and less fearful person. That doesn’t mean I do not still struggle with these things, but when I look back to my earlier life, I can see a difference. Learning that there is a will larger and stronger than mine has given me a freedom to repent of my sins and to trust in the provision of God. Learning that my identity is completely in Christ has started to free me of my need to prove myself and of my fear of what people think about me.
Since getting married and moving to Boston, I’ve continued to learn and grow a lot. I’m learning about the holy fear that comes when God answers a prayer you were taught to pray from the time you started speaking. I’m learning that marriage demands more of me and gives more to me than I could ever have imagined. I’m learning that loving the church requires a painful level of humility and a supernatural level of grace. And I’m learning what it means to work hard for something you want and believe in without making it an idol. Ultimately, I’ve been learning about the amazing and sweet abundance of the Lord – that his blessings are unpredictable and incredible, and that he gives far more than I deserve.
And while all of these more recent lessons are good and have been so important, I still find myself needing to learn about finding my identity and home in Christ, surrendering my will to his. These are lessons I expect will continue with me all of my days. As I anticipate how God might keep working in my life along these lines, I find myself contemplating how he wants me to learn to rest in him, letting both of these lessons lead me to greater peace.
Our God is a good God, and I hope this testimony of my own relationship with him encourages you in your own.
My brother wrote a song recently and within it exists my childhood. With the opening lines, memories flood into my mind's eye in soft dappled light. The song starts soft and beautiful and my childhood is quietness and melody. The windows of Illinois graduate student housing and screened doors that lead out to porches overlooking cornfields. German walking paths and a trampoline. Learning to say prayers and goodnight songs singing the ABCs. I see four heads, my siblings and I together. Moments on the couch, in the woods, in the back alley - shades of brown descending into blonde, blue eyes melting to brown.
And then chaos breaks loose and the memories move in rapid motion. Movement is everywhere and childhood becomes one large scream that contains all of the joy and anger of growing up. I am throwing rocks at my siblings, afraid of their togetherness against my isolation. We are playing tag and catching fireflies in summer evening hours. We walk the dog endlessly around neighborhood blocks. I am left at the table to eat food I don't want. Roller blades, scrunchies, and beaches. The American landscape whizzes by outside a minivan window, there and back and there again. We try to learn to listen to each other as we're told to do, but tears, depression, anger, yelling, and fear are so much of what we hear. Porch swings and thunderstorms. Junker cars and flat tires. Teasing about early romances, helping put the pieces back together when the heartbreak comes. We have each other’s backs at school dances. We compete with each other and it hurts. But always pride, pride, pride for the wins of each individual.
And then at the 3:45 mark my mother's hands appear in a benediction over us. The chaos of life parts and over us is spoken a blessing. Sanctification works itself out in painful and brutal slowness. But she is there, speaking peace and kindness. A moment of silence, a pause in the storm, and my father's bass breaks through to push us all ahead, deeper than we knew we could go. With my mother's hands over us and my father's bass keeping us in motion, we four go forward into the world and see what lies therein. It is terrifying and amazing, a beautiful melody and a chaotic reality entwined together.
And as we embark on transcontinental visits, weddings, and graduations, we four stay banded together. There are long distances and years of ache, but I see the dappled light go with us and we four still descend from brown to blonde, from blue to brown.
Lives unknown by fame.
And it’s tempting to hope
In the dream that caught your eye
But it’s left your heart undone.
These shoes are all worn out
From chasing flawed designs
And they’ve left me alone.
Now I’m bold enough to trade
Ambition for some rest.
Hearts restored through shame.
I envy your peace.
There’s nothing left to lose
When all your pride is gone.
The simple things in life
Are all that’s left to do
When you realize your heart
Has hope for something more
Than all your dreams can give.
Souls unseen by time.
Now it’s waiting for you,
The life you’ll have again
When this sorry world is gone.
A few years ago there was a popular cartoon floating around Facebook. It depicted the Disney princesses and then purported to unmask the true moral behind each story. Every princesses's story was displayed as derogatory to women in one way or another, and the general idea was how harmful the Disney princesses are for little girls.
While I didn't disagree with every point made in this cartoon (Belle really does seem to have Stockholm syndrome and Ariel really does promote the idea that talking isn't necessary for women to be happy in a relationship), and I do think that much about the Disney princess obsession and culture is unhealthy and at times destructive, much about the cartoon left me befuddled. In particular, I felt confused about the complaints against Cinderella.
Cinderella was never my favorite Disney moving growing up and I still don't respond to it emotionally as I do to many of the other films. But my entire opinion of the story changed dramatically in my early 20s. Sometime towards the end or shortly after finishing college, I happened to watch the old cartoon while babysitting some little girls. What I saw amazed me - Cinderella is one of the most woman-centric Disney cartoons made. And I am not unversed in feminist theory - I wrote my senior thesis on the New York Heterodites and Simone de Beauvoir.
Let's think about it. There are no men as central characters; all of the primary agents of action are either female or non-human (and even then, the strongest non-human elements are female). My biggest complaint about Cinderella growing up was that it did not depict true love because the prince wasn't a real figure in the story (this is still a valid complaint). But if you are complaining about misogynistic Disney movies, I suggest you reconsider the fact that Cinderella is the only Disney movie thus far in which the prince is pretty much unnecessary. It isn't a true love story, because it's not a story about love. Rather it is a story about one woman's struggle against the circumstances which keep her down. Cinderella repeatedly and methodically works to overcome that which oppresses her through decided and concerted effort with the best means available to her. Isn't this the most simplistic cause of feminism?
Since this realization, I've been deeply loyal to the story, and in particular Disney's rendition of it. So, when Kenneth Branagh's version came out last month, it was with both breathless anticipation and dreadsome lothing that I went to see it. In short, this movie could not have better identified and exploited all that is marvelous for women about the Cinderella tale. I've heard many people praise it for its simplicity, lack of cynicism, and willingness to embrace fairytale. These are all indeed commendable. But I don't think it is in these things that its power truly lies. After all, there are times and places for complex stories, cynicism can speak truth, and no story but One should be left unrevised.
The real power of Disney's live-action Cinderella is that they got the hidden strength and power of the story right - that not all attributes traditionally associated with women, namely kindness, are signs of weakness. As I think back on Disney's original cartoon and why the Jezebel readership despises it so much, I am convinced it is because Cinderella is too nice. I hear so much about women needing to step up and take control and it often really only amounts to devaluing kindness. As a result, stories that exemplify a woman for displaying such a trait are belittled and mocked. Kindness is associated with an inability to defend or promote oneself, so best to do away with it altogether.
But is kindness really about becoming a wet rag? In order to be kind women, must we also be domineered? I find it very sad indeed to associate the two. Sometimes it feels like women are in such a rush and frenzy to do away with the things that have truly oppressed us for so many millennia that we label those true strengths that have always been ours as false and harmful. I propose that kindness is a strength women need to be careful not to weed out of our gardens in order to play with the boys.
And Cinderella depicts why this is true. As women, we may be inspired by and fall in love with the Katniss Everdeens of this world. When faced with unimaginable situations, we may hope to take up our arms and fight. At times this may be available to us; there are times when fighting openly and bitterly is in our power. But what about the many times that type of fight is not in our means? What about times when the forces are just too great and we are just too small to become Katniss? What if we are Cinderella? Are we really willing to say that the only strength that matters is the strength to fight? Or do we have a definition of female power that is both big and small enough to include kindness and perseverance in times of trial and duress?
Part of the debate around the Disney princesses concerns what values we want to instill in our daughters. As a child and I teenager, I didn't resonate with Cinderella. I resonated with Belle, and Mulan, and Katniss, and Eowyn - the women who were strong and could put up a good fight. I am glad that I had these characters to look up to and be inspired by and I am thankful for parents who never dampened my love of them or tried to instill a singular vision of feminine virtue. I will give my future daughter these women to admire. And I will tell her to fight when and if the time is right.
But I will also give my daughter Cinderella. And if my daughter is anything like me, I will give her Cinderella more than the other women, because kindness and perseverance are not my natural gifts. I want my daughter to know that strength is multifaceted. I want her to know that kindness is not weakness. I want her to know that serving the good of others does not mean giving up her agency. Most of all, I want her to know that like Cinderella, there may comes times in which she is not enough to beat the bad guys and when or if that happens, she will need to live in such a way that acknowledges their power but not her moral defeat.
As I said above, there is only one Story that does not deserve revision - it is the single story for all ages. The point of this post is not that we should withhold doubt and reexamination from the stories we tell our daughters. What we tell them does shape them more than we can ever imagine. I just don't think our current version of Cinderella is one to do away with, for it rounds out and enlivens all that we want our little girls to grow up to be.
And because I'm woefully behind on this whole one-post-a-day project, I'll just leave this little story right here:
Once upon a time, three women walked through Washington Square Park. The sunlight was flitting through the trees as they laughed loudly with each other and sipped their cappuccinos. Jazz wafted across the square from the Japanese musicians honing their craft for all to enjoy. The day was beautiful and magic was in the air when...
All three women jumped and immediately started to shriek. To their left a healthy and plump squirrel had just leapt from one 100-foot-high tree branch to another 100-foot-high tree branch, only to grasp onto a dainty twig too small to sustain his weight and plummet to the asphalt. Expecting squirrel brains and guts to spill out across the sidewalk, the women watched in horror as the squirrel twitched violently and then lay flat.
Hurriedly averting their eyes in a mad attempt to block out the horror, the three women rushed away from the sight, crying out in sorrow. But the youngest of the three glanced behind in pity only to find...
The squirrel running across the sidewalk.
Needless to say the recently quieted shrieks resumed once more, but this time passersby noted amazement lining the edges of the women's sounds. Running back to the location, they gazed in awe as the squirrel sat very still in the grass, collecting his breath. How could this make sense? The women had just watched this little animal plummet to his death not seconds before. They had witnessed him twitch and writhe, and ultimately go cold. They had heard the dead and sickening thud of his body against the ground. How in the world was this squirrel now...
Climbing the tree?
With supreme agility the tiny creature made his way back up the 100-foot-high tree and lighted once more upon its branches. The women stood in wonder at the little guy, wishing him sturdier branches and better days ahead.
And that is how we found out in a New York City park that squirrels can sustain a fall of over one-hundred feet and be totally ok. According to online sources, these amazing little animals fluff out their tails to use as a parachute when falling and are able to puff up their bodies in order to break the fall. This would be the equivalent of an adult human sustaining a fall of more than six-hundred feet.
The Snoke women have a new hero. And his name is squirrel.