By Christine Darragh
January: a month of holing up, of hiding, habituated by days of never setting foot outdoors; of hibernation and huddling, buried in blankets. A month of beginnings, of resolution; of promises we make to ourselves, to improve and produce; of pressure to perform; of habits to build.
We’re two weeks into this New Year, and I’ve spent more time hiding than building habits.
In reality, if January is anything, it is the collective breath of relief that I take when Christmas is over, guests are gone, presents opened and placed on shelves, the last chords of carols have rung, and decorations boxed away carefully, nostalgically anticipating another Advent.
Our days and diets return to the ebb and flow of a routine which includes beans and vegetables, and regular cleaning–the emptiness of a Christmas-less home demands it.
The gluttony and sloth of the holidays swing back into balance with moderation and a reestablished self-control. Cleaning seems to be the theme of days, and the confession from Psalm 51 this past Sunday, “Create in me a clean heart” brought to mind my personal Bible study earlier this week, which talked about cleaning house–our interior, mental space–in order to reflect our faith.
Often, our resolutions look outward toward accomplishments, and even when turned inward, they still rely on healthy doses of our own initiative. But, what about habits we’d like to sweep under the rug and forget we even have? (Poor eating choices has been one for me.)
Mental latitude we permit ourselves, that, though seemingly harmless, we’d prefer to keep locked up in the dark, since it’d be hard to explain. (I have fears, whose unrestrained freedom within my thought-scape can bring me to a panicked halt.)
Or how about those choices we make which are disabling, but we come back to again and again, because we can’t seem to stop? (I collide regularly with walls I’ve built over time to protect myself from emotional injuries, but which these days hold me back from close, honest relationships.)
The sermon asked today … where is Jesus speaking to you? How is He shaping your faith right now, today? And, my answer is in Philippians 4:8. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Jesus wants my thoughts; my mind to be consumed with Him.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
The first time I read the poem Mending Wall by Robert Frost, I grasped it as a metaphor. It has been meaningful since sometime in college. (I find its tongue-in-cheek commentary upon the vestigial ritual among ancient neighbors to celebrate a day of putting fences in order, both humorous and personal.)
Why? Because I don’t like walls either. Sure, they are healthy and keep our possessions and priorities where they belong, barring danger and threats from entering our lives. But, walls can hide things, too.
The secrets we’d like to keep locked up, because they seem so shameful that to give them voice might just break us; the pet habits we know are bad, which, if confessed to our families or partners might cause them to lose respect for us; small lies that keep us looking good before other people and preserve their sense of trust in us.
All these things lurk behind walls, in the recesses of our minds and hearts. Walls create division within, and separate us from one another and God.
Walls create division within, and separate us from one another and God.
I’ve worked hard to build the habit of transparency in my family and in my marriage. I’ve learned to humbly walk in the opposite direction, toward confession, when all my instincts yell, “Hide it!” I don’t like to, and sometimes don’t want to.
Often, the smallness of a transgression seems insignificant compared to the disappointment of my husband–or anyone–when I uncomfortably confess a moment of weakness. Why go through the bother of hurting another’s feelings?
Because the Holy Spirit desires our whole, entire, selves.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
Our hidden sins keep us in darkness. They withhold parts of us from the light and redemption of Jesus. In this poem, the tradition of fence-mending holds the neighbor back from seeing that maybe reality dictates a change.
His mind is consumed by the thought that “good fences make good neighbors.” And, so he hides behind a habit, scared or unwilling to bridge the gap that could free him from an unnecessary burden.
I would rather choose the momentary discomfort of facing a friend and confessing to a lie, admitting failure to my child or my husband, and asking forgiveness for any indiscretion of my mind no matter how small–than covering up these pieces and glossing over them in the moment only to find that I’ve lost a friend, destroyed a valued parent-child relationship, or even my own marriage.
Because I’ve seen the destruction that secrets can cause in others’ lives, and my own, I want to walk the road of confession, no matter how reluctantly. And, in the moment that I uncover the shrouded barricades, illuminating the obstructions I’ve built to contain the most flawed pieces of myself, I allow something miraculous to happen.
In my humility and honesty, I leave room for grace to enter my life, communicated in a broken moment and received through the eyes of a friend, my child,or my husband. And, suddenly what was locked up is freed, where there existed a high wall, it is no longer, and instead of guilt and shame, I hear the overwhelming language of love in the words “I forgive you.”
Suddenly what was locked up is freed, where there existed a high wall, it is no longer, and instead of guilt and shame, I hear the overwhelming language of love in the words “I forgive you.”
In The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer says that the difference between Christian love and the world’s natural love is its “extraordinary,” its “unusual,” its “more,” its “beyond-all-that” qualities. These characteristics are defined by “unreserved love for our enemies, for the unloving and the unloved, love for our religious, political and personal adversaries.”
In short, it takes our enemy and puts us in the place of intercessor for them, begging mercy before God the same way that Jesus begged for mercy for us.
When we hide our darkness in our deepest recesses, we lose the opportunity to experience the forgiveness that Jesus desires to extend to us through the relationships that we have. But, we also pass on the chance to show the world the transcendence of our faith, a faith that is willing to go “beyond-all-that,” to sacrifice even the right of retribution in order to reconcile.
So, as I proceed through the new year, my prayer isn’t that I accomplish more, or check off an interminable list, but that God would continue to convict me, showing me the places where darkness reigns in my heart and mind, and giving me the courage to shine a light of honesty into the deepest, secret spaces–together with the Holy Spirit–cleaning a house which needs it, so that I can be in authentic community with people around me, but also so that I can extend the same grace which I’ve received over and over to those around me, in order that the nature of Jesus can shine through me.