Several years ago, I was involved in a ministry that asked me to write for them. At the time, the ministry had a gal in it who had a communications background. She and I sat down and went over some things I wrote and she pointed out some things I did. For example, when I started a note of appreciation with something like, I just want to tell you..., it sounded like I wanted to tell someone something, but may or may not tell them. I also used words like that, just, and really repetitively. In addition, I often softened my opinions and thoughts with the words, I feel...., when in actuality what I was saying wasn't a feeling at all. It was a thought or an opinion I was afraid to own.
After I entered counseling, I realized I used words in ways that influenced my feelings and belied the fact that I had personal power and could make personal choices that would help me develop a happier state of mind. Some of the words I used often were, I have to, I can't...., or I must. I learned to reframe those kinds of phrases with phrases that expressed the choices I did have and found I felt more powerful and less stressed. I realized I could fully own the decisions I made and I felt more content with them. So, over time, I must became I desire to or I want to. I can't became I won't. I have to became my goal (desire) is to.
A couple of years ago, a sweet friend of mine gave me an ampersand that sits on my desk where I can see it. The ampersand has special meaning in the counseling world and recently I realized it has become quite a popular cultural symbol. Some people get tattoos of it and others buy one and use it as a decoration. Right now they come in all sorts of colors and mediums--wood, plastic, clay, and metal.
Over the last few weeks I've been contemplating how the ampersand has impacted my life. As a child, I developed a Black-and-White way of thinking, which impacted just about every area of my life. It impacted my relationship with God, but I was too full of shame over the questions and confusion that arose out of that thinking to discuss them with others. You know, the questions that roll around in the mind about God and His goodness, His power, and His will in the face of great suffering. The Black-and-White Thinking also carried over into my relationships with others. People were either all good or all bad. They could be good for a while and then become bad when they hurt me. That thinking also carried over into how I viewed myself and my recovery from an eating disorder. One slip with an eating disordered behavior and I was a total loser, failure, defective person--even though I had made it through weeks without using an unhealthy behavior. It carried over into how I viewed life. Life was either really good when it was easy or it was really bad when I was going through something hard.
In recovery, I began to realize things really aren't so Black and White! By that I don't mean I don't view sin as sin, I mean that I don't view things as all good or all bad. The word that I first began to use in my head was, "But." It came in the form of things like "My friend is suffering, but God is still good." "My husband hurt my feelings, but I find I still love him." "I ate a cookie and feel like a failure, but I am still a child of God." "This trial is really tough, but I hope to grow through it." I realized for me the word "but" is a bit of an expression of resistance and a little bit of protest and left me feeling unsettled. That may not be true for everyone but it was for me.
It was okay for a season, but I wasn't content to live in the “buts.” I wanted more. To get the more I often had to journal and talk about the “buts.” The first time I did it I wanted desperately to forgive an abuser. I started out writing:
I forgive_________for__________, but they hurt me. I simply repeated the exercise over and over until I had run out of buts! I hate to admit it, but it was quite a long list! In that exercise I went from wishing I could forgive to being able to say "The abuser hurt me, but I forgave him."
That was okay at the time, but to be honest it still didn't feel finished. It felt I was forgiving because I had to, but reserving the right to protest a little that it happened. It felt like I was forgiving, because I wanted to minimize the impact that it had on me. It also felt like I was forgiving, because I wanted others to think I was okay. As I am writing now, I glanced at the ampersand on my desk and I find myself smiling because I realize over time the something more I wanted was found in the "and!". When I say my abuser hurt me and I forgave him I feel this sense of peace wash over me. The "and" means to me that two things are equally true. The "and" doesn't minimize either truth and for some reason, for me, the "and" doesn't minimize the feelings on either side of it. The "and" is like a picket fence that allows me to see the past and not be controlled by it!!!
The "and" has helped me view God, the gospel, and redemption more accurately. Jesus is all powerful and Jesus is meek. Jesus is the Lion of Judah and Jesus is the Lamb of God. Jesus is merciful and Jesus is just. Jesus is God and spoke the universe into being and Jesus became a man rubbing shoulders with His creation. Jesus spoke and His words pricked stubborn hearts, calmed turbulent seas, cast out demons, healed broken bodies, forgave sin, caused soldiers to fall back and Jesus remained silent in the face of illegal trials to lay down His life for us.
The center stage of the gospel is at the cross. It was the place where His holiness shone the brightest and it was a place where man's sin was its ugliest. It was the place where man's hatred screamed loudest and it was the place where God's love was most fully demonstrated. It was the place where sin in all of its ugliness was imputed to Jesus and it was the place where His goodness in all of its beauty was imputed to us. It was the place that resulted in death and it was a place that resulted in eternal life. Jesus was God and Jesus was man. Jesus died and Jesus was raised.
Ah! Those "ands"--they even trickle down to me. I am a sinner and I am saved by grace through faith. I was an enemy of God and I am now His child seated at His table. I was in bondage to sin and I am now a bond servant to the living God. I was wounded and I am continuously being healed by the Wounded Healer.
The ampersand--it seemed to remove the shame I experienced over being human and the shame I felt for being in the throes of living a redemption story that in the beginning was characterized by sin, woundedness, and fear. It seemed to relieve the shame I bore for living with both the flesh that craves to do wrong and the spirit that desperately wants to live victoriously close to God. It also relieved the shame of having believed I was too much, not enough, and unworthy of being loved and being captured by His love that ran deeper than the deepest wounds in my heart. I still believe the "but" was an important step of my journey, but I like living in the ampersand where two seemingly conflicting truths can co-exist and can open my heart more fully so I can trust God who is bigger and more complex than my mind can grasp and who loves with a love so deep my heart will never be able to fully comprehend it in this life I am living.