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Who Do You Think You Are?

Knowing and accepting yourself helps you be fully present without pretense

Some of my earliest memories find me sitting barefoot and cross-legged under a large tree in our neighbor's backyard. My girlfriends and I were making purses out of large leaves, weaving the stiff stems through the fleshy edges. I enjoyed nature and creating beauty with my hands. I was a tenderhearted, very compliant, artistic little girl, who loved beauty from an early age.

Unfortunately, that gentle essence was pretty much out of line with the values in my immediate environment. I was raised in a part of the country whose entire economy was based on the exploitation of natural resources. Refinery fumes invaded our homes and non-air-conditioned schools as well as paid the bills. Our family culture valued important things like thrift, achievement, discipline, academic excellence, and faithfulness, but did not invest much in beauty, emotion, or the more tender aspects of life. There was little money for music lessons, ballet, frilly bedroom décor, store-bought clothes, or musical instruments. Makeup was discouraged; fashion was for others. Nor was there much interest in nature or travel.

Enriched by the family strengths and values present, I learned to be a very good student. Along the way, God provided manna for the more beauty-bent parts of me through neighbors and friends, books, art electives at school, youth group trips around the state, and teachers who encouraged me to write. But by and large, conscious awareness of that beauty-loving, tender part of my personal identity faded almost completely, going underground only to be resurrected at age thirty-five.

For many months, my new life felt unsure and fragile. As the people in my world discovered that something was changing with me, I felt freer to adjust my schedule to better accommodate this massive internal shift. I resigned from virtually all of my ministry obligations and began to see a counselor every other week.

This was a season of intriguing and continual revelation. I spent several years becoming reacquainted with that little girl who loved to sit barefoot in the grass. I discovered that I am a gardener and an introvert. I found out that I am a deep thinker and that's just fine with God. In fact, it's a gift! I recovered my emotional sensitivity, and I learned that I have a large dose of the gift of mercy, a gift my made-to-be-a-corporate-executive thinking had denied completely.

Much of what I discovered had to do with my feminine identity. I began to wear makeup and became more aware of my emotional nature. I curled my hair and designed a new flower garden for our backyard. I became more aware within my relationships and let my deeply compassionate heart lead for a change. I felt both more pain and more joy with each day.

As I came to know my true self more and more, I began to possess such a sense of personal grounding and presence that my heart began to open to what God might be calling me to do in the kingdom at large. About that time, my husband and I attended a conference where the speaker was referencing the story of Moses. He highlighted how overtly God spoke of hearing the cry of his people when he called Moses. When he posed for us the question "Whose cry have you heard?" the response "wounded women in the church" surfaced immediately for me. Not long afterward, I realized that in order to do that work, I needed to continue my education in graduate school.

The decision to move our family for the sake of my education was a difficult one. The move would be a dream come true for me, more work for my husband, and genuine suffering for our kids, ages sixteen, thirteen, and ten. In that season of decision, the Who do you think you are? rant was almost everywhere I looked: friends, family, church, and within. But my sense of calling remained.

Just before we left, I directed a retreat for the women of our church, asking a counselor friend of mine to speak on "The Cry of a Woman's Heart." My role was to handle general administration, act as the emcee, and lead a gardening workshop. It was great fun to share some of the wisdom I had learned from God in my garden. The retreat felt like a lovely and appropriate parting gift to the community that had given me so very much through the years.

The move was costly and difficult, but oh so enlivening for me. I found myself, at age 40, in graduate school. Three thousand miles from my native homeland of Texas, I began to discover even more latent aspects of myself. I found that I love to listen. Previously, I thought my preference was to speak, to teach. Through feedback from others, I found out that I have a gentle presence. That surprised me. Though I knew I had changed internally from that hard, harsh person who actively fought against recognizing her tender, merciful heart, I had never realized that others could see that difference. My identity was becoming a reality on all fronts, one step at a time. What a transformation! I was also affirmed for my depth of thought and insight, a trait that, sadly and painfully, some had responded to by telling me I would be "of no use to God's kingdom" if I didn't think and speak more simply. I was willing and eager to accept and embrace these parts of my identity.

At the same time, when my professors affirmed my writing abilities, I was not willing to hear what they were saying, dismissing it as a pretense, a choice to be nice to me to keep me paying tuition! (I am now quite appalled and embarrassed by my cynicism! Self-contempt turned to contempt for others.) I also discovered that I was in the midst of a pendulum swing with regard to some of my self-perceptions. When I took a Myers-Briggs assessment in school that year, I scored near zero in thinking and near 100 percent in feeling. My academic record begged to differ. I needed time to settle into a more realistic sense of myself. As I noted in the introduction, this was also the season in my life when I began to become aware of my tendency toward self-sabotage.

These new self-discoveries began to subtly reshape my faith journey. I longed for stillness and silence, fewer words, more sacraments. With my barefoot-little-girl sensibilities restored, I needed to taste and touch and smell my worship. My faith shifted from being book- and knowledge-centered to becoming more gospel- and wisdom-centered. I was drawn to the perplexing and confounding teachings of Jesus. My merciful heart subtly shifted the priority from learning more about righteousness via books to receiving and offering more mercy via Communion and action. As one of my wise professors said, "You need a church with a different furniture arrangement." He was referencing the different emphases of traditions that place the pulpit front and center compared to those that are physically centered around an altar and Communion.

Graduate school was marvelous, but when our finances dictated an earlier-than-expected return a year later, I was struggling. Though I could complete my degree long-distance, I loved the Pacific Northwest. I did not want to move back to the refinery-filled landscape of southeast Texas. I knew I could not return to the same church. Even more sadly, I also knew that there was nothing I could say to those I loved that would adequately explain why.

The Syrophoenician Woman

Like many accounts of women in Scripture, this is a brief story. Brief, however, does not translate to small in meaning. This text is much like the miracle sponge you see advertised on television: If we pour ourselves into it, we will see it expand before our eyes!

Jesus left that place and went to the vicinity of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know it; yet he could not keep his presence secret. In fact, as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia. She begged Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.

"First let the children eat all they want," he told her, "for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs."

"Lord," she replied, "even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

Then he told her, "For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter."

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone (Mark 7:24–30).

She Knew Who She Was

She was a woman. Not a man. She was a Greek. Not a Jew. She was born in Syrian Phoenicia. She was neither of the Promised Land nor one of Abraham's seed. She was a mother, perhaps a new mom, as the text says her daughter was little. She was in deep angst. Her daughter was possessed by a demon. She was a listener, possibly a friend of some local Jews. She heard of Jesus' arrival despite his desire to keep it secret.

She was bold. She went as soon as she heard. She was humble. She fell at his feet. She was desperate. She begged. She was singularly focused and she knew something of who Jesus was. She asked this miracle-making rabbi for only one thing: to drive out the demon from her daughter. She knew who she was and she came as who she was. Not so hard, right?

Yesterday evening, I met with one of my spiritual direction clients who is about to get married. Because of some local scheduling conflicts, some old church politics, and an out-of-town location for the wedding, few of her church family are slated to attend. She expressed her deep hurt with many, many tears and very vocal anger. I had to fight to keep from smiling.

Don't misunderstand: I am not the least bit happy about my friend's pain. What made me want to smile was the fact that she came as who she was. She was fully present without pretense. She knew who she was and what she was feeling, and there was no gap between the internal identity and the external reality. For the last year since we have been meeting, most days she brought her brain but rarely her emotions or her body. Last evening, she was all there—a daring and vulnerable act of faith worthy of celebration (at another less painful moment). It is not a given that we always know who we are or approach others with bold and authentic relationship.

She Knew Who She Was Religiously and Culturally

The Syrophoenician woman was not clueless. She knew that when she came as she was, this Jewish rabbi would likely not even acknowledge her presence. Jews and Greeks (Gentiles) did not mix. It was socially and religiously forbidden, grounded in ancient custom and law. Wholesale rejection was the most likely course.

Perhaps she had heard of the compassion of this rabbi. Perhaps she was grasping with abandon at even the most remote straw. Perhaps the rejection would have simply echoed or validated what she was feeling from God as she watched her child suffer. She came knowing that it would take more than one miracle for her precious little one to be healed. First, she had to be heard.

Yet she came anyway. As herself. If that Just who do you think you are? accusation had been raised within her, she would have simply and confidently answered it. She did not try to create a more acceptable identity or obtain a proxy, perhaps a Jewish friend who might plead her case. There was no pretense, only a willingness to be fully and honestly present. This was indeed a choice of great faith.

She Knew a Deeper Truth

This story really opens up when we consider the context. Just before this encounter, Jesus had a moment of frustration with his disciples. The question at hand was "What makes a person acceptable (clean)?" Surprisingly, Jesus' teaching was that it had nothing to do with the external. In verses 1–14, just before our story, the Pharisees had initiated the conversation with talk of ceremonial washing before meals. Jesus expanded the conversation with an Isaiah reference: "These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me" (Mark 7:6). He also mentioned issues way too close to home for them, such as how poorly they were treating their parents. He concluded with remarks about evil being inside out, not outside in.

Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, "Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them."

After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. "Are you so dull?" he asked. "Don't you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn't go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body." (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

He went on: "What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person's heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person" (Mark 7:14–23).

I don't believe this story was placed just after this teaching by accident. This deeper understanding of clean and unclean was the very truth this unnamed woman from Syrian Phoenicia not only knew intuitively, but was also banking on big time.

She Sensed the Source of Power and Hoped for Mercy

Scripture is full of non-Jewish women who saw and sought the power and mercy of the God of the Jews. Think of Rahab, who had heard the rumors of what God had done for his nation and declared her belief to the spies (Joshua 2). She knew where the power was, and she approached, seeking mercy. Think of Ruth, the Moabite. Undoubtedly expecting rejection based on her nationality, she followed her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi back to Naomi's homeland. Ruth, too, knew where the power was, and she approached, seeking mercy. And mercy she received through her loyal and kind choices, her creative mother-in-law, Naomi, the provision of the law, and the faithfulness of her kinsman redeemer Boaz (Ruth 1–4).

My guess is that each of these three women knew more through their feminine intuition and relational sensitivities than through rational, theological, or analytical knowing. They were not "dull" like Jesus' disciples. They sensed in their innermost being that this was the direction of salvation and life, and then followed the Spirit's prompting.

She Planted Herself and Persisted in What She Knew

I have heard lots of defenses for Jesus' remark to her, but still it never fails to impact me like a slap in the face. Some say the word he uses for dog is a reference to a valued pet. That's not much comfort. What has been helpful, though, is to read the whole of this story through the lens of the end of the narrative. The telling conclusion finds Jesus healing the daughter and affirming the woman's reply as the reason for that healing.

With that lens in place, I read her response not as agreeing to a contemptuous label, but as standing tall and courageously in the presence of harsh religious and cultural realities. " ‘Lord,' she replied, ‘even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs' " (Mark 7:28). What a brilliant, shining retort. This spirited woman grounded herself in the reality of who she was—in the midst of an overtly acknowledged social/religious context that devalued her—and asked anyway. It is as if she were saying, "Yes. I know who I am and who I am not. I know that I have no externally based right to be here asking for a miracle. I also know I am a mother with a sick child. A sick child whom I have heard you can heal. I know it and I believe it. Crumbs? Hey, I'll take them. No problem."

This wise and astonishingly brave woman stood her ground. There were logical reasons for rejection. Yet she was completely authentic and unwaveringly unapologetic. Listening with her eyes and her heart, how could she have missed or doubted the mercy in Jesus' eyes? Something in her knew that logic and laws, nationality and status, the externals Jesus had just devalued in his teaching with his disciples, are never the greatest reality. She knew the very thing that the disciples could not grasp. The fact that she so boldly evidenced this knowing, this heart-based, internally defined holiness might well be the larger message of this side-by-side section of Scripture.

Crumbs Are Enough

I see within this story a duality to the "crumbs are enough" message. We often believe that the reality of who we are is not enough. We are not loving enough, smart enough, caring enough, tough enough, beautiful enough, and on and on. So we pretend to be someone or something else. I call it the Wizard of Oz syndrome. Poor Oz, he was hidden behind that curtain, feeling like he was only enough in the pretense of Oz the Great and Terrible. He saw his limited human presence as a crumb. What he didn't realize was that when we are crumbs fallen from the Master's table, we are enough.

A huge part of the Syrophoenician woman's faith was the fact that she came to Jesus as a fragile and limited human being. No pretense or manipulation, no screen or great and terrible image—she was a needy and real woman. Just as she believed that the crumbs from Israel's table could heal her daughter, she also believed that the crumb of who she was would be enough to be heard.

Jesus Honored Her

"For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter" (v. 29).

Jesus tied her daughter's healing directly to this Gentile woman's brilliant and shining retort. He did not miss her courage and he rewarded her faith. She had persisted in both the reality of the limitations of who she was and in her desire for and expectation of mercy. She walked into the house likely expecting rejection, but she refused the temptation to talk herself out of going or to run away. Neither did she compromise, deny, enhance, or hide her identity.

My Story (continued)

In August 1998, we moved back to Beaumont. I had found such life in my graduate school community; amazingly deep connections formed in a single year of shared learning, now torn asunder. As our family returned, I leaned into instead of away from my sadness for the first time. The only thing I knew was that God had not brought me back to die. I could hardly stand to be inside and spent most of that first fall working in my yard. I transplanted grass in September heat and tearfully planted a dozen encore azaleas in 40-degree misting rain on Christmas Eve.

Alongside the grief were some amazing surprises, seeds of new life God was planting in the loose, tear-moist soil of my life. We began attending a local Episcopal church. I felt as if I were finally home. This tradition suited my newly recovered identity perfectly. I found life and new avenues for growth in this ancient tradition that emphasized the Gospels in teaching and weekly Communion in worship. I also located a spiritual director, an ancient discipline I had learned about in school, and began meeting with her monthly.

Over time, with my spirit so well fed, I gave back to my church community through leading a grief group at the request of our pastor. I loved the work and was genuinely helpful to others. It suited my listening and emotional sensibilities and my depth of thought. I also created and offered a workshop for women, "Women, Wisdom, and the Word," exploring how one might nurture feminine spirituality through the interplay of Scripture, creativity, and small-group conversation. For the first time, I felt as if my ministry and my giftedness, my work and my identity, were well matched, hand in glove. I was letting my light shine, fully present without the need for pretense, operating on all cylinders. When I confronted that core, accusing question of self-sabotage Just who do you think you are? I actually had an answer! What a difference that made in both my efficacy and my satisfaction.

My next adventure was an unexpected one: hospital chaplaincy. With our first child's pending departure for college, my husband and I knew that more income was needed. I was actually interviewing for a different position when Sister Margaret Mary offered me a job as a chaplain. She was a wise and intuitive woman who reminded me over and over, "Do the job as only you can do it. Listen to yourself as a woman and follow that path." Though there were some rough days at first, soon, with Sister Margaret Mary's steady encouragement and positive feedback from within and without, I found chaplaincy to be both a place of effective ministry and an opportunity to stretch and strengthen my capacity for service. I was daring to shine as a gentle, listening healer.

Excerpted from My Own Worst Enemy: How to Stop Holding Yourself Back by Janet Davis. Used with permission of Bethany House Publishers.

August31, 2012 at 10:22 AM

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