Finding hope in the midst of brokenness. Marlena Graves, author of A Beautiful Disaster, knows what it’s like to feel lost and alone having grown up in a poor house plagued by mental illness. She joins us today to discuss the longing we all have to belong and the hope we have knowing there is a God who sees us for who we are and loves us despite our brokenness. Leave a comment below for the chance to win a copy of A Beautiful Disaster (only those in US & Canada are eligible) .
That first night our new, faith sharing facilitator asked our group of about forty to “use one word to describe yourself”. I heard words like ‘tenacious’, ‘honest’, ‘kind’, and ‘passionate’. And yet, I was stunned by the honesty and vulnerable confessions of one of the most beautiful and gentle souls I’ve met in this life—a confession made to what was then a room full of strangers. “Invisible,” she said. “I’ve always felt invisible.”
Another time, my not yet one-year-old daughter and I were sitting in the university cafeteria. Matthew had some sort of intellectual disability. Each day one of his main jobs was to refill the napkin dispensers. This day, my daughter wouldn’t stop staring at him as he approached our table. She had recently developed the habit of staring people down. I think it was her way of studying the world.
She stared at Matthew for longer than usual. And so I stammered out an apology on her behalf as he stopped to converse with us and tickle her chin. I’ll never forget his response to me. He said, “Oh, that’s okay. It feels good to be noticed and to have someone pay attention to me. That doesn’t happen very often.” His answer cut to the heart. I wondered how many times I’ve rendered another person invisible. I wondered whether my attitude or the distance in my eyes or impatience in my demeanor (because I am not in the mood to be bothered by others) dehumanized them somehow.
And yet, I too know the pain of feeling invisible.
We are often secretly asking ourselves when we meet another, “Is there anything about me that would recommend me to you? Do you accept me for who I am?” Every one of us is looking to belong. We want to be known and loved for who we are. When we meet another’s gaze, we want to see delight in their eyes—to be cherished as the apple of their eye. We want to walk on this earth visible. We want to be seen. There’s almost nothing as lonely as feeling that we do not belong, that we’re standing on the outside looking in, rejected for who we really are.
We want relief from the wildernesses of the mundane, moments of quiet desperation, or days full of sound and fury. When we feel invisible, we feel as if our lives don’t really matter, as if we’re nobodies who just want to be somebodies. I’ve found that all sorts of people are tormented by the feeling of invisibility, even those we perceive to have everything we’ve ever wanted.
That’s one reason I’m drawn to Jesus. He saw those who were or felt invisible—people like me. He saw and paid deep attention to those people others refused to see or didn’t want to be bothered with seeing. Jesus was not calculating, opportunistic, or manipulative with his love and affection. A person’s popularity or obscurity didn’t determine whether or not he offered his loving attention—whether or not he saw them. Jesus often made a beeline for the outcasts and despised, those who their entire lives knew the despair of being cast to the margins and rendered invisible by the cultural and religious eye-gates.
Jean Vanier, one of the cofounders of the L’Arche communities, notes:
“To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and their value, to say to them through our attitude, ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you.’”
When we render others visible, we love them and help to reveal the beauty of their God-given existence. And when we look into the face of God as revealed in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, we see delight, each one of us—the apple of his eye. This is a part of our salvation, a part of what it means to understand that we are the beloved children of God. As we experience ourselves seeing God see us, we’ll be able to say with Hagar: “You are the God who sees me” and “I have now seen the One who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).
Marlena Graves (MDiv, Northeastern Seminary) is an op-ed writer for Christianity Today’s popular Her.meneutics blog. She is a member of Ink: A Creative Collective, the Redbud Writers Guild, and the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Institute and has written for Christianity Today, Relevant, and the Conversations blog. She has also worked in college residential life and speaks frequently to students and congregations about spiritual formation.