We’re thrilled to have our dear friend Anne Marie Miller on the blog today, sharing an excerpt from her wonderful book, Lean On Me: Finding Intentional, Vulnerable, and Consistent Community. We love her heart for community and friendship, and we pray this story of vulnerability will encourage and inspire you in your own relationships.
Over a year had passed since my divorce, and God’s silence was still too much for me. I was out of town, and in my hotel room one evening. I wept. For hours. Why? Why? Why? Where are you? I don’t understand.
Still nothing. Still silence. The numbness morphed into anger. I drew myself up on to my knees and faced the headboard of the bed. I considered a drastic choice — a choice that would go against everything I learned a Christian should do.
Flashbacks of Sunday school and Bible verses and my life as a good preacher’s daughter — as a woman in ministry — went flying behind my eyes. In between the flares of my anger and hurt were memories of holy moments. I reflected on the night of my ordination when I was twenty-nine, the elders of my church leaning over me and putting their hands on my head, my shoulders, kneeling beside me as they commissioned me. I thought of my grandfather on his deathbed, telling me to never give up on the church. The moments of grace given to me by friends and the times my heart grew supple and receptive. How many times did I kneel at the altar? “Anne, the body of Christ broken for you; the blood of Christ shed for you.” I ate the bread. I drank the wine. My tears were in the crevices of the wooden floor in front of the place I would kneel Sunday after Sunday.
But somehow, this reel of sacred and lovely memories wasn’t enough.
So much. So much. So much fury and grief and silence and loudness, and it was all in a vacuum that finally opened, a breaking point that was broken, and everything went soaring from the secret places where they hid into a very material atmosphere.
In that moment, I didn’t care. I didn’t quietly renounce Him. I yelled. I put my fist to the wall in the hotel room. Not only did I swear God off, I swore at God, dropping four-letter words that were difficult for me to hear as they slipped out of my mouth. I threw the pillows as hard as I could across the room screaming at Him to leave me alone.
I am through. With. You.
I stared at the pillows on the floor and felt my right hand throb from its violent contact with the wall. With a red, swollen face, my eyes eventually closed and I fell asleep.
I woke the next morning covered in anxiety. I turned on my computer and did a search for “Catholic churches.” I needed to confess. I needed some form of penitence. An atonement. I called the church and a sweet older woman’s voice greeted me on the other line. I set up confession with a Catholic priest in a town where nobody knew me and begged him to give me some way to earn back grace. I am not even Catholic.
He was the priest and he was from Tanzania and in seminary. Because I wasn’t Catholic, he couldn’t offer me confession. But he offered me a seat in his office and wise, wise words.
My battle with God the night before was not a way for God to opt out but a way for me to allow Him in even further. I was not the prodigal son. I was the older brother. Like the father in that parable in Luke, God came outside His celebration to see why I wasn’t joining in. I pushed my list of demands on Him. I didn’t want Him. I wanted relief. The prodigal son was covered in an obvious filth when his father met him: the slop of pigs and sweat and dirt from his humiliating journey home. I was covered in my own loam, though not so material: my fear, my control, my entitlement, my cursing, my rejection of Him.
I could not earn his love and I could not remove it from me. We cannot remove God’s love from us. It is like, as Rilke says, one of those “things that will not ever leave.”
It is cosmic, the way He loves us; how we sit in periods of silence and fly through periods of joy. The emptiness I felt for so long was merely my soul in rotation, much like the earth on its axis. It is the sun and the stars. Pain and joy do not leave us. We will experience seasons where life is full and bright and spectacular and perhaps causes a person or two to stop and see the light that is coming from inside of us by no action of our own wills. There will also be periods where the night sky is wholly black and starless. But over time, one by one, stars will reappear and bring their luster and hope.
God’s withholding of an emotional reprieve was the most profound mercy I could have ever asked for. Mercy brings both comfort and pain. Sometimes it is soft and peaceful, and it swaddles us. Sometimes it surrounds us with silence, leaving us feeling forgotten and rejected. This mercy is the most difficult to accept, but I’ve learned it’s also the most imperative to transformation.
I still feel shame when I look back to the night in the hotel room where I punched the wall and cursed the One who loves me most, always and for infinity. Doubting Anne; it was a test of faith like Thomas, where I demanded proof of His presence. I had to trust that He would love me, shattered pieces included. I may have told Him to leave, but I was opening my heart to Him. I was being vulnerable with the One who already knows each and every hair on my head. It was a revelation of sorts, perhaps a new term of growth.
I thought I was fine, and maybe for a short season, I was. But God did not want to leave me there in the state of being fine. The silence was the mercy of God, showing me it was time to shed one more layer of my old wine skin and feel my pain. Not because God is a sadist, but because if I couldn’t be naked and unashamed before Him, I would never truly expose myself to others.
A great misunderstanding in the world is that we must wait until we feel safe to be vulnerable with other people. They must earn our trust and show us they will not take our wounds and cause them to bleed more. We misconstrue the wisdom of guarding our hearts, our life’s wellspring, as a command for us to form a fortress around it.
We are never safe from pain, and safety has nothing to do with vulnerability.
Vulnerability will hurt. When you speak it, you will have to force the words to form. Our nature is to hide and to protect ourselves from pain, from grief, from shame. It is a paradox: once we realize being vulnerable is never safe, we are then free to be vulnerable. We guard our hearts by giving it to the Guardian. We accept the fact hurt will come. We see wounds as gifts. When this dramatic shift in our spirit occurs, fear no longer controls us.
We can surrender; we can commit. A community can form around us, and we can let others into the spaces in between the very best and the very worst of who we are. Yet to be this vulnerable is insane, and it is exactly what unites us to others. The pain that comes with this vulnerability is only a shadow compared to the joy that follows.
In Lean On Me, Anne Marie Miller takes us along as she sets out to dig below the superficial and explore what choices are necessary to find intentional, vulnerable, and consistent community. Jesus was passionate about truth-speaking relationships. And with Anne Marie’s narrative and practical insights interwoven together, you will feel more equipped in your quest for these types of relationships as you seek people to lean on and as you pour love into those around you.
About the Author
Anne Marie Miller is the author of four books and speaks at colleges, conventions, and churches on the topics of social justice, sexuality, health, addiction, and biblical themes of grace and restoration. She also writes for various publications, studied family sociology, and is currently pursuing her DMS at Rockbridge Seminary. She lives with her husband Tim, a youth pastor. Her highly anticipated book 5 Things Parents Need to Know about Their Kids and Sex (Baker Publishing) releases May 2016.