When Reality Isn’t Romantic

My first warning sign should have been that he took me to a really horrible buffet and I said nothing. That being our first time out, I should have questioned whether or not I was on a dead-end road.

But I’ve always been someone who can find a way to make the dullest things seem enchanting.

So, I figured I could probably spin a story about gloopy Chinese food (at a place that looked like a prison cafeteria) into something romantic…right?

No. Sometimes bad Chinese food is just bad Chinese food. Sometimes a walk in the rain is not a cinematic fairytale. Sometimes it’s awkward and you end up coming inside to a house full of people staring at you while you’re dripping all over the carpet.

Sometimes the things we tend to think are charming and glamorous are actually just incredibly tragic if we step back and open our eyes to reality.

In reality, I was stuck in a weird “relationship” that was nothing more than a sad attempt to live inside of a story that, from the outside, would have made a great Nicholas Sparks novel.

But if I had chosen to have some hard conversations earlier, I would have saved myself so much time.

We keep growing the wrong things.

We grow the story, the attraction, the picturesque moments that make all of our friends swoon. But we don’t grow the roots. We don’t grow the foundation. We don’t inspect or toil the ground we’re planting in. We don’t stop and ask why someone is taking us to the worst Chinese buffet on the planet…we make an excuse and romanticize it.

We do this because reality isn’t always romantic. Reality is, if a man takes you to a really bad Chinese buffet, there will probably be a whole other list of questionable decisions that follow.

Rather than talking about it and pulling at the loose threads, we hold on to the hope that maybe there’s some kind of glamour to be salvaged or spun from a very weird and awkward scenario. But if we were to pull at those threads, we’d see that poorly crafted “relationships” fall apart at the slightest bit of tension.

“The griefs that punish us the most are those we’ve chosen for ourselves.”

Knee deep in studying, I read that line the other night and let my heart steep in those words. The stories we tell ourselves, the things we make up and choose to believe, those are the things that punish us the most. The threads we ignore, tuck away, and pretend aren’t there.

Because we know if we pull at them, it will all unravel and we’re not ready to let go. We know when a relationship is cheap, but we hold on because it’s something. Maybe it will change, and at least for now it staves off the loneliness.

But we need relationships sewn together with hard conversations, painful truths, and choosing one another long after the rose-colored glasses have gotten foggy. We need to stop constantly romanticizing the difficulty of walking next to another human being. It isn’t just something to Instagram, it’s something to grind through with blood, sweat, tears and lots of prayers.

It’s cheap to push aside those hard conversations because we’re afraid of spooking the butterflies. We have to stop clinging to that fairytale idealism we were told was necessary to keep love alive.

It seems we’ll do anything to keep our fairytales (even choke down a greasy knock-off version of General Tso’s chicken).

We ignore the threads that could so easily unravel the relationships we claim to value most. We don’t ask the question of why someone doesn’t respect us (or himself) enough to take us to a restaurant with a passing sanitation grade. Instead, we smile our way through it because we’ve convinced ourselves that the kind of relationship that lasts is one where no one rocks the boat.

But rocking the boat and pulling the threads is the thing that shows us where the leaks and tears are, where to mend and where to rebuild. We must learn how to be painfully aware of another’s imperfections, unafraid to expose our own, and the value of choosing the other with eyes wide open.

Because love is not passive. Love is not blind. Love that lasts is the kind that sees everything, is given a choice and chooses to say something; it chooses work it out and stay in spite of everything.

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The Church Didn’t Teach Me The Gospel

Sitting around that worn wooden table, we just glared at one another.

These glares often followed an outburst of saying some things our mothers would not have been proud of.

I never turned to see how many people were staring at us during the times when we would scream at the top of our lungs. Night after night, this happened, inside a room that often held so many people that everyone was forced to sit or stand shoulder to shoulder.

We were finally far enough away from home. Finally, we were an ocean away from the hell we had been in for the last two years. At last, we felt free to say some things we had learned to swallow and choke back down, whenever they had threatened to come spewing out.

No need to whisper anymore, it wasn’t necessary to peek over our shoulders and make sure the coast was clear. We could slam our fists, raise our voices. We could use names, dates, places. No need for discretion, no desire to filter, just brokenness laid bare on the table before us.

I was done with secrets, at least for those few weeks. The strength in my voice had finally cracked under the torturous pain that those secrets had bore into my skin. Bloody and bruised, I gave up the fight to appear brave.

For me, the last leak of light had disappeared. I stopped trying to mask the wretched smell of my own blood, my infections; the way the pain and hopelessness had cut me and left me unbandaged and left for dead. My hands clenched the dirt that my once joyful face now lay on, I knew I could hold out no longer. I knew, then and there, that I was absolutely and undeniably finished with pretending like I could crawl another inch.

These are the things I never said when I came home from that trip.

This was the story that I left at the airport before I boarded the plane to come home. I decided to live by the whole line of what happens there, stays there.

But I didn’t come home healed, clean, or pretty. I managed to bring all of the agony to the surface and then when I stepped foot back home, I felt that sense of urgency to tuck it all away again. I needed people to believe that I had done my holy duty, I had given “our kind” a good name. I wanted the church, my friends, my family to believe I had taken flight, changed the world and come home a little more cultured, a little more experienced, a little older and a little wiser.

The reality was, I’d come home a little more reckless, a lot less reserved, and panicking to pretend like I didn’t see the worst version of myself when I looked in the mirror.

Because the reality was, in the year before that trip, I had seen more death, more defeat, more bitterness, more failure, more ruin than I’ve seen in all my other years combined. There had been things done in that time that had been so hurtful, so downright selfish and toxic. I had seen certain glares of evil that my once naive heart could have never even fathomed. But rather than turning on the light and staring those monsters right in the eye, I had kept my knees to my chest and sat with eyes closed in my bed. In the middle of the darkness with all its demons, I just remember thinking to myself, daylight always comes. It won’t feel this way forever, it can’t last forever.

I would remember thinking about that verse that said, though pain comes in the night, joy will come in the morning.

But when I would wake up in the morning, it was still dark. It was still painful, I was still shaking.

These are not things you expect when reading a Christian blog. These are not the things we paint for you on our stained glass windows. These are not the things I bring up at the breakfast table, or chat about over coffee on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

But this was reality. I cannot say I reached a point of depression to which I could not function. I cannot say that I internally dealt with thoughts or ideas that many people I know have. God kept me from places of self-hatred, of losing my will to live, or of decisions that could have ruined mine or my family’s lives. I was protected from those places, I was kept safe from those corners of darkness. But nevertheless, I faced fear that the church never taught me about. I came face to face with things that no mentor, minister or televangelist had ever fully admitted to walking through.

I had heard lines like, “I’ve gone through some dark times, but the Lord brought me out.”

But no one ever told the details of that darkness. No one had been authentic enough to pour out the gory and raw specifics of what it takes to hold on when you’ve worn out all your black dresses from going to funerals. I hadn’t heard stories of how dim it could get before dawn would come. My Bible sing-a-long songs had never told me that I would feel abandoned, forgotten, paralyzed. I had no grid for what life could look like when I had “done all the right things” and “made good choices” and was still attacked and assaulted by evil.

I was in a war, they told me I had weapons. They handed me verses about armor. They said I’d be able to fight. They never prepared me for the repulsive and vile face of the enemy standing on the other side of that battlefield. They made me think he was a little cartoon with shiny red horns and a laugh like the villain of a Disney movie.

The church did me a disservice when it came to teaching me how to grip hope when darkness would steal so much of the rope that there was not enough threads left to “tie a knot and hold on”.

I finally understood why so many sanctuaries sit empty and the rate of substance abuse, suicide and war were on the rise. We disarmed our best soldiers by training them with a simulation of stories with fluffy vocabulary about “trials and storms” when the reality is they will come face to face with an enemy who doesn’t fight fair and only plays dirty. He can come with excruciating beatings, cause agony with the twisting of his knife, spin hurricanes that knock down everything they pass.

I had been trained to believe that if I read my Bible, sang my songs, quoted my memory verses; then I would “weather the storms”.

They told me God was my shield, but they never told me what I’d need him to cover me from. They said He was my strength, but they never told me how weak I could really get. They said he’d be my joy, but they never really told me how that I’d need it because I could become utterly hopeless.

They used their Christian terms, their catchy (and not so catchy) praise songs. They didn’t tell me the truth. To the ones they raise in their four walls, the sheltered ones, they shut off from the world, they never tell them what it’s really like when they push you out of the nest to “Go to the nations” or “Go make disciples”.

I write this with absolute certainty that many will judge me. I don’t care. Because there are other believers out there, sitting in their pain and believing that for some unknown reason; they are the only Christian to ever know such pain. They are not. You may lie to them, you may dress it up with pretty pictures and a Jesus with a shiny robe and silky soft hair. I will not.

The reality is, I rarely listen to “Christian songs”. Because they’re perky and make me think that I’ll just keep walking on and pumping my fist and quoting Philippians 4:13 and that that is how I will “overcome”.

They write songs about how His love is warm and cuddly and will cause me to be able to do the aforementioned things like skip through life and shine my little light.

When the reality is that His love is not a sunny day that will make all the clouds disappear. It is a fierce and devastating force to be reckoned with, it is what stands up in front of me and fights violently for me when I am face down in utter ruin. When my body and mind are so battered, bruised and broken that I cannot stand, that I can no longer cry, that a whimper would require more strength than my mouth may possess.

And His Word is not a little butter-knife that will trim off bad habits and bad behaviors. Life isn’t just as easy as writing in my prayer journal to add a warm delightful topping to my “daily bread”.

His Words are a sword that cut lies and mutilate evil and dismember the limbs of the ones who come to murder me when I sleep.

This is the Gospel and this is the God I’ve come to know this year. This is not the sing-a-long song that I carried around in my little cassette deck. This is reality, this is the truth. This is what we’re up against. This is my victory. This is what I know about this battle. This is how He won it. This is why I’m a Christian. This is why He was on a cross.

It was not so I could have little arm floats to hold “little ole sinful me” while I splashed in the kiddie pool. It was so that when I hit the bottom of the darkest, deepest nightmares of my life that I could grip an anchor that would bring me back to the place where he could breathe life back into my water-filled lungs and with his scarred hands pump a rhythm back into a heart that stopped beating.

This is the reality. This is hope. This, in all its scandal and controversy and offensive imagery is the Gospel and it is not the one I’ve heard in most churches.

But I have not given up on the church, even so. Even in her disservice to me, I love her more now than I ever have. I do not say these things to start a rebellion, to sway someone to never again darken her doors. I say this to open the platform, to pull back the curtains, to call her higher,  and to challenge her to speak truth. This is to stir up authenticity, and to apologize for her wrongdoings.

I say this to remind her and myself of our first love, of the Man and God who still pursues us. To charge us, to love him back… for who He is, not the Hallmark Movie Hero we tried to make Him out to be.

I say this to say: let’s tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth… so help us, God.