On Becoming Real
For me, 2015 was colored largely by a Women’s Retreat I attended in May. The retreat was held on the grounds of an old Catholic church called St. Mary’s in Sewanee, Tennessee. I shared a room with a friend in a dormitory, with a window that overlooked one of the most dramatic and beautiful valleys I’ve ever seen. We were perched near the edge of a cliff in the woods of a serene little town for four whole days. It should have been a dream weekend, but alas, I was in pain.
Five days before I had fallen and bruised my tailbone while roller skating, and there was virtually no position, other than standing or walking, where I felt comfortable. That would have been fine if I was on a four day walk-about by myself, but I was on a four day sit-about with a hundred other women. Most of the time, we sat in a conference room and listened to speakers for hours, and when we weren’t sitting to listen, we were sitting to eat and to visit with other women. It was a most uncomfortable experience, but the fact that everyone around me could tell how miserable I was made me more uncomfortable. I don’t like to be the center of attention when I’m feeling confident and energetic, let alone when I’m needy and in pain. I tried to fade into the background, which didn’t really work.
I was with a group of Christian women after all, and there’s nothing we like to do better than try and take care of someone else. There was no way to escape the barrage of sympathetic questions: “How are you feeling today? Are your hindquarters doing any better? Would you like to try sitting in this chair instead?” On and on the attention was poured, and the more I brushed it aside, the more intense it became. I stood out like a bear cub at a picnic table.
To make matters worse, this was the kind of retreat where I was supposed to focus on myself. That’s what my friend Susan told us when she began the first session on Thursday night. “Thank you for taking the risk to answer this invitation, Ladies,” she said. “Jesus wants to meet with you, here, over these next few days.” Susan looked at us all in earnest before continuing. “This time is worth all the trouble you took to make it happen,” she assured us. “You are worth it.”
The problem was I couldn’t believe her. Not one little bit. Oh, I wanted to of course, but all I could think about was my sore bottom. The theme for the weekend was culled from a few verses in Ephesians chapter 3 which talk about “being rooted and established in love,” and having “power … to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” It was a message I found difficult to believe as I sat awkwardly upon my donut pillow, listening to yet another speaker. She read Revelation 2:17 to us, a verse that talks about each saint in heaven receiving a white stone which bears her true name. “Do you think Jesus has a special name for you?” she asked us. “Would you be brave enough to take some time now and ask him to tell it to you?”
I looked up at the small table in the left front corner of the room. It was low to the ground and decorated with an ornate cross, a large candle, and a plain blue tablecloth. There was a basket of fresh, white stones in the middle, with a few black Sharpies placed neatly beside it. I’d been on a retreat like this before, so I knew our speaker was about to point out the table to us. I knew we’d be invited to come and write something down once we’d heard from God, but I didn’t expect to hear anything. How could God’s voice compete with all the other noise inside my head? Suddenly, Susan walked up to the microphone. She told us we would now begin our time of listening with a music video. “Watch this,” she said, “then ask Jesus what he wants to say to you tonight.”
I recognized the music playing while the screen was still blank. I know this song, I thought, as Jason Gray‘s face appeared on the screen. I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of him. I know that guy, I thought. He’s my friend, I remembered, and he’s a rabbit! (That’s a little nickname for people associated with a website called The Rabbit Room which, incidentally, helped give birth to The Foundling House.) A millisecond later I thought I heard God tell me, “You’re a rabbit, too.” Ah, but these words sounded too good to be true, so I closed my eyes against the sting of tears I felt forming. That’s when I saw the image of an old, beat-up bunny. He was dirty and ragged and his stuffing was falling out in a few places. “You’re my little ragamuffin, rabbit,” I thought I heard Jesus say, and his voice was like mine when one of my kids comes indoors to tell me that he accidentally broke the new jump rope he got for Christmas: affectionate, forgiving, sincere.
I struggled with the rabbit part of that name because so many of my friends in that community are more accomplished than me. They’ve written books, or they have official websites where you can buy their records, paintings and t-shirts, whereas the projects I dabble in feel more like insignificant hobbies. But the ragamuffin part was something I identified with immediately, and unfortunately it’s turned out to be a theme for me this past year. Indeed it seems as though each passing month has brought more physical ailments, more pain in my heart, and more bruises to my soul. The last month of 2015 turned out to be one of the hardest I’ve ever faced, and I’ve begun to wonder if I brought it all on myself by choosing to focus on that little moniker.
My faith tells me such thoughts are superstitious. After all, God is either sovereign or he isn’t. Still, I can’t help but be glad that 2015 is behind me, and I’m longing to feel hopeful about the new year ahead. There’s likely to be pain here as well, as the issues we faced last month are not yet resolved. But in picturing myself as a ragamuffin rabbit, I’m reminded of an old skin horse who once told a shabby little bunny that although it can hurt to become real, “when you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
Perhaps Real is the word I should cling to for 2016. Maybe it’s the one thing I can hope to become when I look in the mirror and notice how most of my hair’s been loved off, that my eyes are a bit droopy, and I’m all loose in the joints. What if this time next year, I won’t feel broken, out of place, or unworthy anymore, “except to people who don’t understand?” I’m not sure what that will look like exactly, but I know I’m looking forward to the day when it finally “lasts for always.” It’s kind of like that other famous book tells us:
“My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” – James 1: 2-4
Along with that admonition, I’d like to wish you a most Happy New Year, friends who read this website. What words might be meaningful to you in 2016?