I held her hand as she sat, her tears across the table running down her face in droplets, each one containing a poison desperate to escape from her body.
How is it? I asked. Tell me everything.
And she did. She lay out her life like a map on the table, and then filled it with landmarks: the fights, the loneliness, the not-fitting-in, the almost break-ups, the harsh words. The river that was tearing straight through her heart. and the mountain of irreconcilable differences.
Leave nothing out, I said.
I’m trying, she told me.
We sat there, for well over two hours, as she spoke, as she used her words to wring out the feelings that were growing like bacteria inside her. I sat, waiting for her to finish, waiting to roll up my sleeves, ready to knead back into her love and self care.
But then, at the end of it, she stopped, abruptly. Puffy eyed and swollen, she grew stiff. She took away her hand and wiped her face.
It’s my fault anyway, she said. I’m worthless.
I stared at her, frozen, cut deeper by those words than anything else she had said that afternoon. I’m worthless. The words came out cold, unfeeling, matter-of-fact. Like she had stood in the mirror and looked at herself rehearsing it time and time again, until their meaning rolled off of her and hid in her shoes. Like the words were a lifeboat, and even though they had holes, they were enough to pull her out of the storm of emotion that was inside her.
I’m worthless. She picked up her purse and pulled out some crumpled bills. She stood up and smoothed out her skirt, and then handed them to me. This should cover the drinks, she said. Thanks for listening.
She turned to leave. I grabbed her hand. Our eyes met, hers now glazed over with a hard armor, to protect herself from the life she was about to re-enter. I wanted to say something, anything, to make her believe that she was not what she thought, but her eyes warned me against it. I’m fragile, they said. Don’t crack my armor. So I squeezed her hand and let her go.
I wish I could say that this woman wasn’t a Christian. That she didn’t understand God’s great grace. That she went to one of those crazy fundamentalist churches that also made her hold snakes.
But she was, and she didn’t.
This woman was not the first, and probably will not be the last, to say, in some form or another, that they are worthless. She is one Christian of many I’ve heard deprecate themselves, speak of their low down, worm like status, declare themselves unlovable. The scariest of all: too many of them say they learn it in the church.
I am a firm believer in our powerful, grass roots, home grown gospel, in a God who loved his people enough to make them his children, in a glorious inheritance we will will one day receive when our weary feet cross the river into the land of Canaan.
But for years, I too, stared at the pulpit and heard not a message of grace, but a message of you’re not good enough. You are worthless. In the hymnals, at the alter, in the stern wrinkled face of my Sunday School teacher.
You are dirty. You are a sinner. You are worthless.
No wonder so many people grow up in the church only to leave it when they reach full height. Shame faced and miserable, they’ve grown up to be angry, because they are sick of hearing that they are ugly. Those who stay develop complexes, feeling the weight of the paradoxical message: yes, God values you, but you are worthless. Yes, God loves you, but you are unloveable.
I guess the easiest way to keep a bird from flying is to tell him he doesn’t have wings, and the best way to keep a beauty from the runway is to tell her, always, that she is ugly. And maybe the best way to keep the Gospel of Grace from flourishing is to make its followers believe they are worthless.
I’m not saying that I don’t think I’m a sinner. I know I am. I know I’m elbow deep in dirt. But I also know that if the Lord made me dirty, it’s because he knows that there is nothing more beautiful in this life than wading through the muddy, thick paths, feeling the warmth of the dirt behind my ears in under my fingertips, my face low to the ground and my heart crying out through cracked skin for answers, because he who seeks will find.
If we are so worthless, I wonder, why would God have even bothered creating us? Wouldn’t he have just thrown up his hands after Adam and Eve and decided he’d had enough?
Why would he have given us art, music, laughter, seasons, snowflakes, sunshine, feelings? Why would he have allowed tears to fall from our eyes and ties to grow between our hearts? If we are worthless, why would he have spent thirty three years on this earth and then died for the sole purpose of showing us how much he loves us? If we are unloveable, why are we adopted as children? If we are useless, why does he use us, over and over, to demonstrate his grace ,his love, his promisees to a thirsty, weary world?
I’ve seen too many Christians walk under the weight of the woman in the cafe, subconsciously destroying friendships, marriages, and eventually, themselves, because they believe they are worthless. They believe they are unlovable. But here we miss the most transformational part of the gospel: we are deeply, unimaginably, loved.
If I am dirty it is because he wants to make me clean, and if I am a sinner it’s because he’s using my sin to teach me the depth of his love.
I understand we don’t, we can’t, earn our salvation. I know it’s given to us with by a God more filled with love than any of us know what to do with. But hear this: we are not unloveable.
I want to go back to the woman in the cafe. I want to look in her eyes again, to see the thin veil of armor, the hard truth, so she thought, that she was worthless and so deserved all that was happening to her. I want to make her stay, to make her see, to tell her, here is something:you are loved. You are a beauty. You are a breathtaking, every day miracle that eats, walks, sleeps and creates, and the only thing that keeps me from falling to my knees in amazement at you is that I see these walking creations every day. That just the sight of your tangible, touchable smile is evidence of the loving God who created you.
Some of us are hardwired, I think, by dysfunctional, misguided, “Christian” teachings, to believe that when we go through something hard, it is because we are being punished. We view ourselves as the misfit, delinquent student, and God as the harsh teacher. It doesn’t cross our mind that maybe the thing is hard but, press on, child, because you are being molded and shaped into something more precious than gold. That the tears we cry don’t come because we’re worthless, but because we’re being given a treasure even the angels will know nothing about— knowledge of the weight of suffering, and the love of a God who will one day save us from it completely.
I wonder if knowing this, right down to the place where our bones meet our souls, would change not only our understanding of God and of ourselves, but of the way we share the gospel. If, instead of beginning the salvation message with: you are dirty, you are worthless, you are a sinner, we started it with here is something: you are loved.