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Present Over Perfect

Present Over Perfect

I shared a while back -- a long while back -- a book I was reading by Shauna Niequist titled "Present Over Perfect." Well, I read a bunch of books at the same time, so I don't get through them in a few weeks like the average person. It takes me literally months to get through a book.

The other day, I was reading this book (which I'm almost done with, by the way) and I found myself admiring how open and honest Shauna was in this beautiful memoir-type book she had written. I'm not a crier, but this chapter brought so many tears to my eyes because #relatable. I'd like to share this little piece with you, and hope that it brings you something like it did for me.

She tells the story of when Jesus called for Peter to walk on the water - a story we are all familiar with. The way she describes how this story affected her personally is truly so beautiful. 

Here's the thing about filters -- they color everything. Nothing is neutral; nothing escapes them. The shame glasses I wear almost all the time mean that every story looks like shame to me. Every punchline, every plot twist -- they're all the same; you're not good enough. What I'm discovering, though, is when I take off the glasses, the stories I've been hearing all my life are completely different than I thought -- especially stories from the Bible.

At a gathering of the Practice this summer, Father Michael, a Jesuit priest and Aaron's spiritual director, led us through an Ignition prayer of imagination. Essentially, he reads a section of Scripture aloud and invites us to imagine ourselves in the story: What did it smell like? What did it sound like? What character in the story are you? 

He used the story of Peter walking on water -- deeply familiar for anyone who's grown up in church. I knew this story, of course. I knew that Jesus invited Peter out onto the water. I knew that Peter began to sink, and that Jesus scolded him for his lack of faith. I knew that story backward and forward...meaning that I knew the actual story, and I knew in such a visceral, familiar way all the times that I'd been Peter -- step out, sink, receive the scolding. Step out -- longer this time! Great job! You're doing it! But then inevitably sink, receive the scolding.

The scolding's the worst part, of course. I should be used to it, but it stings every time. I know, I know -- I'll try harder, I'll focus more. I promise. 

And then this gentle priest read the story again, and again, and again. We listened, exhaled, found ourselves in the story, practiced the prayer of imagination. Again and again.

And there in my chair on a summer Sunday evening, I realized that all my life I'd had the story wrong. I had twisted it for my own purposes, a practice as old as the hills. We twist the sacred words to tell our own stories. We do it with Scripture; we do it in conversation. Whatever you're looking for, you'll find. If you're looking for stories to affirm your deep believe in the goodness of humanity, you'll find them. If you're only seeking stories that say the world is nothing but evil, you'll find them. And if every story you hear, every song you sing, every tale you tell is really a story about shame and about not being good enough, you'll find it. 

I know this because I've been doing it for years. For me, when someone says, "I can't come to your house," I hear, "You're not good enough." When someone says, "That woman over there is so pretty," I hear, "You're not good enough." When someone opens his or her mouth to say almost anything at all, what I hear is "you're not good enough." 

So, of course, that's the story I see in this one. But on that Sunday night, something clicked and released. 

Before Jesus scolds Peter, first he rescues him. I've had that wrong all my life. I always picture the falter, the failure, the scolding, then finally the begrudging hand of help: I knew you couldn't do it yourself. Do I have to do everything?

But now I was seeing something entirely new: the rescue came first. When Peter faltered, Jesus reached out a hand before saying a word. What an extraordinary thing! For a girl who's been failing and faltering all her life, bracing myself for the scolding, enduring the disappointment and gritting my teeth till the hand is finally extended and I am safe, the rescue coming first changes everything.

And this is what really undid me; it's not a scolding at all. It's a loving post-game analysis -- hey, pal, what happened out there? How can we, together, help you stand? It's so loving, so parental, so protective...why haven't I ever seen it this way? 

Because I'm trained for shame, and I see it everywhere, even when there's not a shred to be found. But here's the thing: what if it's not there? And what if shame actually isn't in many of the places I think it is? What if all my life I've been trying to walk with a Jesus who reprimands me while I'm drowning and grabs me at the last second, rolling his eyes? No wonder I don't tell him when I'm scared or fragile. Why would I? No wonder most of my prayers sound like minutes at a board meeting, an underlying giving the quarterly report: I'm working on this, also this. Will do better next time on this. So sorry about this, again. I'm on it. I'm on it.

Since that Sunday, sometimes when I pray, I think about the rescue. And then I think about the tenderness of that conversation after the rescue. I remind myself that I'm building a new set of stories -- the ones that were true all along, instead of my old set, whispering shame at every plot point.

I think of swimming with our boys, and how when one of them struggles, I don't lecture. I don't let them flounder a few extra seconds while I correct them sternly I scoop them up, a hundred times an hour if necessary. I watch them, grab them, keep them close. When we're safe again, when we're close to shore, then we talk about deep water or clearing our ears when we dive down deep.

But before all that, rescue. Rescue. Rescue. Even the word moves me. And then the question: why did you doubt? Not: what's wrong with you? Not the frustrated and rhetorical, "Why on earth did you do that?" that a parent asks a child after he knocks something off a counter. But a question, an invitation into conversation, a way of saying, "I'm here and I care, and let's solve this together." 

I haven't often prayed to a God who says, "We've got this; we'll do it all together. Your failure doesn't rattle me. Your limitations don't bother me." But I do now, little by little. Because now when I step out of that boat, I'm starting to see a man with love in his eyes, a man who will rescue and rescue and rescue, and then bring me to safety, despite my faithfulness, despite my failure.

This makes me wonder, of course about all of Scripture... how many other stories have I twisted to tell my own story? How many images of God have I constructed out of my own wounds? And what would happen if I stepped inside of them like I did this one and found the narrative fundamentally altered?

Thank God for that gentle priest, for a tribe that gathers on Sunday nights, for the ancient tradition of the prayer of imagination. Sometimes we read the same passages all our lives without realizing we've rewritten them in our own images. How much more beautiful is our God when we free him from our own wounds and tired narratives? 

Tonight, as I fall asleep, I'll picture myself walking on water. And then I'll picture myself being rescued.

I hope you liked this little portion of the book that I wanted to share with you all today. There's a few more pieces I want to share with you guys, if you'd want to read them. 

Are there any stories you've read that have touched you? 

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