I breathe long and deep before climbing out of the car and stretching my cramped legs. Part of me is simply relieved our shaky little car survived the drive.
Mom and Dad came at the crack of dawn to watch the kids and I came all this way to meet her. To hear her words. To express how much she had encouraged me - and now? I was so nervous I could barely swallow.
I think it to myself, "Ann Voskamp herself invited me here - I better not mess it up." Her sweet invite brought me all the way to her home church and her sweet words had brought me through the hardest times of my life. She pointed me to the One who heals and hears when I most needed it. And she still points me right - daily. Her book has infused truth deep in my bones and pushed me to count my gifts and bow to God's grace. To really open my eyes and live. I mean really, truly live.
Yes, she was a role model, a mentor, a cherished friend and yet I'd never met her. I was sure she'd think I was absolutely crazy.
She humbly squirms as she is introduced, then gathers all the women together and we sip tea and nibbled treats as she starts her talk. She speaks of mentorship and women and mothers and the common fears in all of us.
Being laughed at.
That aching feeling of just never being good enough.
I know them. I know them well.
And she speaks of the reality that we need each other and we need community more than we know and more than we want to acknowledge. She admits she has hidden behind far too many books in public places. I smile and nod because so have I. I don't hide behind my phone - I hide behind my notebook. She says it's like a fence - like a barrier. A safety zone. "Don't come in here..."
Yes, women for women - we need community. We need to build each other up instead of pulling each other's hair out.
She has us toss yarn in a circle and say 'me too' for every statement that applies to us.I remember it clearly:
"I have 3 kids."
"I love to garden."
"I'm afraid of women."
*gulp* "Me too."
And the crossed string makes a colorful web, connecting us all. Ann explains it with wide eyes - this web can be the foundation for how we hold each other up. We are different, but we are all so much the same. We all have the 'me too's.
She speaks of the girl who pitched a hard ball at the back of her head from a school bus window. My stomach turns knots. I can feel the humiliation, the fear building up. Girls can be cruel and sticks and stones break bones and names dig even deeper. I sit in awe as my mind is opened to the idea that 'hurt people hurt'. Yes. It is the hurting who hurt others the most. Lord, help me stand firmly in the gap for the hurting. Help me be overflowing with understanding for those who chuck hardballs and painful words my way.
Later, she asks us to choose a stone from the middle of the table and hold it in our hands.We pray and she tells us we're going to write a word on that stone. A word that represents something that has hindered us from bonding with women. A word that has been our stumbling block - our struggle, our fear. The thing, the feeling that keeps us from genuinely connecting with the women we so desperately need. That keeps us from really letting go and forming strong, real, and yes, vulnerable relationships.
I write: "Fear of being judged" on mine.Leave it to me to make a 'write one word' assignment into a four word answer. But that's the deep, dark, honest, 4-word truth. I fear being judged - by everyone, but especially by women. Because I've been judged and it's hard and it's raw and it never really wears off. I've been misunderstood and I fear the looks, the words, the back-talks. I'm broken and I've been called the names:
Then there's the ones I've called myself:
Oh yes, I know judgment and I fear it like a knife in the back. So, when I walk up to Ann at the end of the day - I bring those fears with me. I carry them everywhere, really.
And I'm also carrying her book - worn, missing the cover, hi-lighted and written in, a thousand page markers everywhere. Sticky notes and bookmarks. It's a mess but it's real. I'm a bundle of nerves before I approach her.
She looks at me and smiles wide, her genuine love radiates across the whole of the room.I mumble. I fidget. I play with the beautiful Three Cords stuff in my hands. I tell her she's been a mentor to me in dark hallways where I leaned over her book in lamplight. One Thousand Gifts in one hand and the Bible in the other. I tell her she's pointed me to the cross time and time again and no words could really ever express it properly - how thankful I am for her. For how she's allowed God to use her.
I finish my ramble and she cries with me and hugs long and hard. She humbly lowers her head and holds her hands in front of her mouth as if praying. She whispers it: "Thank you Jesus... thank you Jesus." She's the real deal and I'm amazed at her humble spirit and her passion for Christ - how authentic she is in that moment and how God uses the broken. And she reminds me how broken she is and I nod and squeeze her hand.
His love flows through those with open hands. And Ann's are wide open. And I want to live like this - like Christ.
The stones we all wrote on - they're piled in a basket at the end of the day. Ann asks us to take the stone of one of our sisters. Yes, to pick up another woman's stone and hold it in our hands. Then, take it to the river at the back of the church and toss it in. Simple as that.
I cry again.
Thinking of all those words - all those fears and roadblocks and lies that have held us back. They'll be tossed to the bottom of the river and symbolically, they are gone. We surrender them to the cool, murky waters and we surrender them to the God who makes all water flow. Cleansing waters.
I walk out alone and I sit for a long time by the water's edge, old trees towering over me. I hold a pebble with the word FEAR sprawled across it. In my palm it sits while I reflect on all the fears that have held me tight. Whoever wrote on this stone knows them too. She didn't even get specific as to what kind of fears - just FEAR.
And I get it. My fears still chase me. Fear of being hurt. Fear of failure. Yes, of failing my family, my kids, failing in ministry. Just failing at what really matters. Fear of missing the whole entire point of this little life. I stare at the tiny stone, unable to let go. FEAR. Another sister's pebble, but mine all the same.
I stand up and gaze at the river's flow.I loosen my fingers and look at that stone one last time before finally tossing it towards the water. It sinks to the bottom and rests in the loose sand. There it is - FEAR. All the way at the bottom of the muck. And I pray letting go would be that easy. Toss it away, watch it sink. Done.
But it's a journey. A long, hard journey. But easier, much, much easier with Jesus. The eraser of fear. The bringer of joy. The "I know the plans I have for you" Lord.
Yes, it's a journey. But this day is a step. Because someone tossed my stone in too and somewhere at the bottom of the river beside a beautiful country church lie the words, "Fear of being judged". And how I pray the feelings would sink with the stone - but they don't. Not always.
But women - we do need to stand together. Because fear is a wicked thing and it can cripple and cage. And so often we are the source of each other's fear. Together, we are stronger. We can choose to quit the criticism and stand united as messed up, redeemed children of God. Kids - united by our likeness and strengthened by our differences.
We can wake up to the One Thousand Gifts around us and count each other as one of them. We can choose to be deeply aware of others and vividly awake to the truth that we are all broken. All fragile in some hidden way. All in need of someone who understands.
We are all fearful of something.
I get into the car at the end of the day and flip open my cherished book to where Ann signed but I was too nervous to read. My heart warms and my lips curl into a deeply genuine smile. I choke back tears.
Her words mean more than she can ever know. Me? Radiate Jesus? I can only swallow hard. How anyone could see that in me, I don't know. But that's just it - when we live wide open, we see the best in each other. We see the best and we say the best. We speak life, not death. And yes, God is ALWAYS good and I am always loved. And so are you, friend.
My simple prayer is this - that fear would sink and love would rise up in its place.That living waters would flow and living words would be quick to leave our lips. That we would stand together instead of turning our backs or hiding in fear. That we would come to deeply know the God I AM, the God who meets us in our darkest moments and in our scariest places and sits close. Who enters right in with us and never leaves. The God who beckons us to enter in to every day, every moment without fear. The God who whispers soft and still that we are loved, He is here, and we are to embrace each other the same way He holds us.
And by His grace, we can do it.
As Ann so often says, All Is Grace...