By 7am on Day 3, we were ALL exhausted. The residents and volunteers had little time for sleep and, in a room full of tired women who were processing the hardest parts of their stories, emotions were running high.
Sunday was particularly hard for me because I was opening the day with my talk (posted below). I was assigned the Single Life talk, which is meant to encourage women who are not married, or divorced, or widowed to pursue hope and love in the midst of what can be a lonely season of life. I had given this talk to a group of teenage girls about 8 years ago, and swore I would never give it again because I was convinced I wouldn’t be single again.
I was wrong.
I really struggled as I wrote this talk because I don’t want to be single. I want to be married and be starting a family. That’s just the honest truth. In the midst of writing this talk, my brother proposed to his girlfriend, now fiancé, which caused great celebration but also great pain in my heart. I could not be happier for Sam and Annie, yet I also wonder how long I will have to wait for my time of celebration.
I was able to share all of this with the women in the 33rd Street Jail, and I felt so safe and comfortable sharing hard parts of my story with them. In some ways, I can relate to them. In many ways, I cannot. My goal was not to communicate much similar or different I may be from them, but to offer a voice of empathy and hope. I wanted them to know that they are not too messed up, or damaged, or hopeless. I wanted them to know that they are worth loving. I wanted them to know that there is more to them than their abuse or their life on the streets.
After my talk, the women heard a marriage talk from a husband and wife who were also volunteering. This couple boldly shared their very un-pretty stories and told of the great storms they have wrestled, and continue to wrestle, as a couple. They did not paint a false picture of marriage. They were honest about how difficult marriage is, and how married people are sometimes the loneliest people in the world.
After both of these talks, the female jail residents were invited to write anonymous questions on index cards for us to review and answer. I received a lot of questions, but many were in the same category. These women wanted to know how and when life gets better, is it really worth waiting for a good man to love, and if love is possible. I could hear their heartache and desperation in their words, and I wanted to give them answers. I, however, was in no place to answer many of the questions. I found myself telling them what the the pain of hope deferred feels like, and how hard it is to use self control when all you want to do is go to a bar and pick up someone to fill your bed for the night. I told them that waiting for what you desire doesn’t necessarily get easier, but it is not impossible. I asked them to love themselves in the midst of the uncertainty and pain.
As we wrapped our weekend on that Sunday afternoon, so many hugs were shared and some incredible things happened. I saw eyes that had been dead on Friday morning light up with hope on Sunday afternoon. I heard women make very real commitments to themselves – not to change overnight, but to wake up for another day and live differently one hour at a time. I saw hearts soften and minds open. I got to see hope in action.
While I left day three completely exhausted, it was that deep tired that you feel in your brain and in your bones when you know you have spent your energy and resources well. I would not have spent those three days anywhere else. I would have slept in the jail if given the opportunity just so I could really live in their shoes for a few days. Even though I still go in to the jail every week, what separates me from the women there is that I still go home of my own free will to a safe house with a warm bed and a great roommate and a sweet puppy. There is food in the fridge and shampoo in the shower and clean clothes to change into the next day. These are all things missing from daily life in the jail. It’s hard to find dignity in a place that is stripped bare, but it is far from impossible.
Single Life Talk
Given Sunday, July 19 to the female residents of the Orange County Corrections Facility
Nearly a decade ago, I was asked to give this talk to a group of teenage girls in Memphis, TN. The setting was very different. I was in my early twenties, I was standing in a very cushy youth room looking at a large of group of very wealthy, privileged Suburban girls, and I promised myself I would never be in a place to give the Single Life talk again.
Tada! God and I do not have the same sense of humor.
While life didn’t turn out the way I had planned (really, does it ever?), I am actually very honored to be talking to you about what it looks like to live as Christian who is single, divorced, widowed, dating, or just wrestling with the idea of love and sex. Living life as a single man or woman requires immense trust as well as the courage to live with desire. Before I gave my life to Christ, I lived with distrust and fear instead of faith and courage. What I learned as a child and young woman fueled what I believed about God and myself, and I acted according to those beliefs.
Being single isn’t just about sex, though our sexuality is a large part of who we are. In the book God Loves Sex by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, we learn that “God created us as sexual beings. Sexuality is an important part of the human experience. This statement is true of young and old, male and female – in short, everyone who breathes.” So if God loves sex so much, why does he ban me from having it right now? If he gave me these desires, why hasn’t he given me a husband yet to share that part of myself with in a way that is pleasing to the Lord?
Psalm 84:12 tells us that the man who trusts the Lord is blessed. But what if you have never been able to trust the people around you, much less the Lord? I learned from an early age the people are not safe, and that trusting is dangerous. I had no idea that there was a God who could actually be trustworthy, and that He cared about my deepest desires and fears.
As a child, I avoided trusting by living in a fantasy world. With one parent consumed by addiction, and another parent wrapped up in fear, I was left to my own devices and I built a dream world around me where I was the queen and everyone else was just background noise. I would dream my days away, making my own rules, and imagining characters for my stories. I didn’t need to trust anyone because I imagined my little world and I was in charge.
As a teenager, my world shifted from fantasy to fear. In order to deal with the chaos of our family, the confusion of my world, and the reality of being a teen girl, I became a performer and a perfectionist. If I couldn’t control other people, I would control everything I did. I didn’t have faith or trust because I found a way to control everyone and everything around me, or so I thought.
In my twenties, fear gave way to shame. I didn’t feel that anything I did or said mattered to anyone, so I began to act as if I didn’t matter. I lived in a haze of pills, alcohol, sex, and parties. I drowned my shame in anything that would remove my ability to feel. I believed I was worthless, so I lived as if I was worthless. I had no idea that each passing night was taking its toll on my heart, moving me further and further away from the Lord and deeper into my own shame.
On Memorial Day, 2011, I was curled up in a ball on my apartment patio crying to the Lord. I had been in an abusive relationship with a very disturbed man for just over two years and I wanted out but I couldn’t see the way. He had spent three days in a booze and drug filled bender, and was threatening me within an inch of my life. When he finally passed out, I went outside and told the Lord I couldn’t do this anymore. I wasn’t sure if the Lord was still listening to my half-hearted prayers, but this was an absolute cry for help from a frightened, helpless woman. I clearly heard a soft but strong voice say, “Get out” in my heart and I never questioned who was speaking.
Over the next several months, I went through the very painful process of leaving a man I thought I loved but I came to realize I was actually terrified of. He left terrifying messages on my phone, threatened to kill me and himself, stalked my apartment, and harassed my neighbors. I slept with a knife beside my bed and prayed for safety and the ability to trust during this dark time.
Months later, free from the monster that used to share my bed, I felt alone and unloved so I began sleeping around again. I was desperate to feel loved, or what I thought was love. After each encounter I felt more empty and more alone. I was lost again and felt as if I had fallen too far to even ask God for help again.
It has now been three years since I have been in any sort of romantic relationship – sexual or otherwise. Two years ago, I was baptized in the Atlantic Ocean and for the first time, I truly believed that I was saved, washed clean, and forgiven for everything I had ever done or will ever do. As I went into the water, I came out knowing that I would not, and could not go back. I have wanted to give into temptation many times, but God has placed so many people and words of truth in my path to draw me back to Him. Jesus continues to meet me in my bed in the middle of long nights when I feel lost, lonely, and unlovable. He hears my cries of desperation through my tears and knows the depth of my pain as I tell him, over and over, that my desire is to be a wife and a mother and to honor Him with a family.
In John 15 Jesus says that he is the vine, and we are the branches. He also warns us that sometimes, like the grapevines in a vineyard, we will endure a season of pruning in order to remove harmful toxins from the vine. God spent years pruning me – stripping me of all of the people, places, and things that were leading me to produce bad fruit, and sometimes no fruit at all! I lost jobs, relationships, friendships, living situations – all things that killed my ability to produce good fruit for the Lord. Like a bud opens to a flower or fruit, we are called to live with open hands. If a bud refuses to open, and lives clenched shut, it cannot blossom into its full potential and purpose. We are no different than a bloom on a vine. We are called to live with open hands, ready to give and receive according to the Lord’s will rather than clinging to the things that make us comfortable.
So what does it mean to live with open hands? To acknowledge desire rather than to kill it? What does it look like to trust the Lord with the deepest desires of my heart, not knowing when or even if He will give them to me? Henri Nouwen writes in his book With Open Hands, “A waiting person is a patient person. The word patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.”
I don’t like being patient. When I want something, I want it now. Why wait if I already know what I want? But that is not the way of the Lord. His timing is precious and perfect, and not the same as my own. Living with open hands means telling the Lord, and my closest friends about my desires and admitting when I am having a hard time believing the Lord wants good things for me. Living with open hands looks like crying to a friend over the phone because I am at home, alone, on a Friday night. It looks like holding that friend in my arms when she has found out she can’t get pregnant and she and her husband had planned on having many children. It looks like cheering for my brother over the phone when he has just proposed and admitting that a tiny part of me is wondering when it will be my time to celebrate.
Henri Nouwen also wrote, ““Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving. When the child leaves home, when the husband or wife leaves for a long period of time or for good, when the beloved friend departs to another country or dies … the pain of the leaving can tear us apart. Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”
Living with open hands means living honestly and vulnerably. It is difficult, and it often hurts. It would be much easier to just give up and buy a bunch of cats and an oversized nightgown collection and just give up hope. But God created me with desires, and I believe he is a good God who wants to love us well. He knit me together in my mother’s womb knowing I would be sitting on my bed at age 31 aching for a husband and children. I don’t know how He will care for me in this season, but I know He will care for me.
In John 15:1-5, Jesus says, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Can I truly believe that? Could I really be clean simply because God spoke? Do I trust his promise to me?
For me, living in faith means trusting the Lord. If I stop trusting, if I go out and take something that is not mine, like a man or a marriage, it will bring destruction because it will be of my will and not the Lord’s. Even if it feels good at first, it will destroy. Fruit grown by force will turn to poison. However, if I wait for the Lord, no matter how much it hurts, he will provide in his time as he has planned.
If I go down to Church Street tonight and pick a guy up in a bar and take him home, I am stealing. I am taking something that isn’t mine to have. And it will lead to emptiness and pain. If something provides immediate gratification, I can almost guarantee you that it is not from the Lord. Like fine wine or a delicious meal, gifts from the Lord take time and care and meticulous preparation. One of my favorite meals to prepare is real shrimp and grits with a recipe I learned when I lived in South Carolina. It’s a delicious meal and, when prepared properly, takes about five hours to complete. There are faster, cheaper ways of preparing shrimp and grits, but they taste fast and cheap. They are a poor substitute for the real thing.
That is what happens when we try to take what we want rather than waiting for God to provide. It may feel good in the moment, but it inevitably ends tasting cheap and fading quickly, leaving a huge cavity behind. What we don’t need can never satisfy us – it will only leave us searching and craving for more.
I will close with this prayer by Henri Nouwen:
I am so afraid to open my clenched fists!
Who will I be when I have nothing left to hold on to?
Who will I be when I stand before you with empty hands?
Please help me to gradually open my hands
and to discover that I am not what I own,
but what you want to give me.”