Lights in a rainbow of colors criss-crossed the stage, near-blinding the audience at times, perfectly coordinated to the heart-thrumming rock music blaring from the stage. The congregated faithful raised their hands, swaying, dancing to the beat, overcome to overflowing with joy and adoration.
Fifteen years ago, this is what I thought the Christian experience was all about. The ecstatic worship the pinnacle of spirituality. I drank in every opportunity to attend concerts and festivals and experiences that would remind me of my new nature, my new family, my new take on the world. I wanted to be carried along on the high from one experience to the next and never come down.
Looking around me in the present, I wondered if anyone else was thinking that. I wondered if their faith was strengthened by the gathering of believers or if they were downcast at the appearance of everyone else’s exuberant worship. I was among those singing my heart out but not because my life was full and my joy unending. The opposite was true.
I was spent. Dry. Worn out. And all I could do was sing loud in hopes that my soul would hear.
“You look so relaxed!”
I had posted this picture from our first day at the beach and the comments echoed this sentiment. Because how could you be at the beach and not be relaxed?
In truth, it was our worst day at the beach. Two tired mommas with five rowdy kids were anxiously awaiting the arrival of the dads and the weather–how dare it!–was not what we needed. The wind stirred up the sand, stinging our backs and covering everything. Away from the ocean, our kids cried as the sand mercilessly surrounded us. We were all tired after a day of travel. We were determined to spend a bare minimum of a couple of hours at the beach because of the colossal effort it took us to get there that morning.
When I snapped the picture, it was so I could text it to my husband with the greeting: Wish you were here! (A note with a double meaning, for sure.) I posted it online later in the day because it was a decent picture of me. (I don’t do a lot of selfies.) And I was surprised at the message it conveyed.
If we’re not careful, our whole lives can play out like this. We can wear our masks of comfort and civility when deep inside we are hurting and bitter. We can put our best clothes on when our souls are covered with filthy rags. We can say the right things and do the right things and never let on that our lives feel wrong. We can paint a pretty picture for the world to admire hoping no one will look too closely and see that we’re just trying to cover up a tattered canvas.
I don’t know about you, but it’s really easy for me to judge someone’s surface. I glance and assume and never take the time to scratch away my assumptions. And I walk away distressed because my life as I know it doesn’t measure up to what I perceive is someone else’s reality. And I’m not just talking about Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram. I’m talking in real life with the people walking around beside me.
I not only judge a book by its cover, I judge a life by its snapshot.
Because that’s really all I get in a moment is a snapshot. One picture that represents just a moment, not the whole. Even a scrapbook of snapshots wouldn’t tell the whole story. I know that my snapshots don’t show you what’s really going on. So, why do I assume it’s that way for everyone else?
I have to write a recap of our family’s year for a family reunion on my husband’s side.
I will confess that I dread this task. I hate writing a year-end Christmas letter, too, because all the highlights and cheer are not the sum total of our lives. There was a year not too long ago when I wanted to lay it all out there–all the junk our family was going through because I just couldn’t fake it anymore. I think we managed a letter that addressed the reality without covering it up, but I still didn’t want to write it.
I’m learning that a year is not all highs and not all lows. Nor is a month or a week or a day. It is some of each, and I am one of the first to side with an extreme. (Life sucks! I hate everything! Why are we here?) My husband gently reminds me that this is not the way it is. That even in the hardest weeks, we have bright spots. It is one of the reasons we try, as a family, to share one best thing and one worst thing about our day at dinnertime. No one has to have a worst part but we encourage each other to find one best part.
Some days, we need reminding that there was good in our world.
The windows are down, a breeze filling the car as we zoom the country roads. I am singing at the top of my voice, uncaring about the notes or how I sound. I want to scream and yell and hit things but this day, I sing instead. It is a release, of sorts.
I am curled up on the bed, bawling on a Sunday morning before church because I don’t want to go and be with people. I want to wallow in my own messy life. But I wipe my nose and dry my eyes, all puffy and red, and I go, less because I want to and more because I think I should.
And I find myself in good company, among those with messy lives and heavy burdens and free-flowing tears. There is comfort and joy and love and care.
And there is this song.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my soul. Worship his holy name. Sing like never before, O my soul. I’ll worship your holy name.
The sun comes up, there’s a new day dawning, it’s time to sing your song again, whatever may pass and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes.
Sing like never before. And I do. Loud and raspy and off-key.
Whatever may pass and whatever lies before me. There are good things and bad things that have happened and will happen. There are weeks of triumph and weeks of trial. This is the sum total of the Christian experience. Not just breathtaking mountaintops. Not just sunless valleys. Some days are deserts. Others are waterfalls. Some draining, others refreshing. And the presence of one does not guarantee the absence of the other. A good week may be followed by a bad one. A bad one may lead to a good one. A season of trial will not last forever, nor will a season of comfort.
Let me be singing when the evening comes. At the end of the day, week, month, year, will I still be singing no matter what happens?
It is a prayer of constancy in an ever-changing world.
This moment, whatever it may be, does not define my life. Or your life. This season is not all there ever is. And what you see now is not how it always was or will be.
Let’s not be afraid to step out from behind the picture. To show our lives for what they are: a messy, beautiful reality. And to look for the scratches beneath the surface of other people’s pictures.
Not so we can judge each other more but so we can love each other more.
Maybe we’ll love ourselves a little more in the process, too.