It is one thing to behold the ocean from shore. To stand where toes sink with fossils of shells, whispering stories when you lift one to your ear—all their stories baptism stories, taken by the sea. And what are they whispering, I wonder, in their funny shell language? Each once held a creature, and somehow each creature figured out ways to form a shell. Tiny heads bits of flint, working hands specks of pepper. Even these slight, little lives with absolutely no say in the world are blessed to create, making homes to fit their bodies. Crouching inside, they brave waves and foam.
There are people on earth I’ve been wrong about. I wasn’t swimming their waves. I didn’t live inside their shells, shells built in desperation from bits of packed sand and weeds around them. We do that, you know. We build our shells from the stuff we can find—the stuff we can get our hands on, sometimes given to us without our asking.
I found myself in a strip club years ago. I carried a meal, and that was about all I carried. And a dancer asked me if I thought Jesus was insecure. I was afraid back then of not knowing, so afraid that words couldn’t take their time sputtering from my mouth. They fell like rain, pelting rain, before even I could decide if I believed them or not.
I quickly told her no. I told her that Jesus was entirely secure, hoping she wouldn’t try to take my Jesus away. And then somehow in the pink and purple lights that chased the dancers as they danced, over a warm meal and cut strawberries, this woman became a teacher: “When he’s in the garden, he’s sweating blood,” she says to me. “He’s asking God, begging God to take it. He knows it’s impossible. But he asks anyway.”
She pauses. She gives me room to speak. I have nothing to say.
“Or even more, when he’s hanging from a cross, some of the last words we hear from his lips are, ‘Why? Why God? Why have you forsaken me?’”
There are tears. The room is dark. The music loud, but silence louder. It’s a sacred pocket, a teaching moment.
“Don’t you see, Betsy,” she says my name, looking at me, looking into me. “Jesus was insecure.”
I felt him slipping—my Jesus. And then…
“But how beautiful is it to know that he was that human with us.”
And then her name was called, and she rose to dance her last dance before quitting the club that night.
“Why have you forsaken me?” Roll it around. Why. What a word. I can’t decide which one is more daring, the word “why” or the word “forsaken,” but what I do know is both dripped with blood from a man who taught us how to live. From a man who was indeed committed to this whole business of being human—committed to forming his own shell and bracing the foam and the oceans deep. A man a dancer at a strip club helped me know deeper and truer.
I walked out of that club with a dissipated agenda. And it has remained this way. Today, there are dancers I call friends: mothers and daughters and sisters and partners whose waves I haven’t known. And I’ve asked myself time and again, is a meal enough?
Standing above, we look down at the tops of people’s heads, but sitting alongside, we see into their eyes. And then there—right there in smiles and laughter and tears and old wounds and new wounds and stories about bad hair days and outrageous things their children say, which is most of why they’re working as hard and as laborsome as they are, and in the trust, and in the fears, there—right there—is the face of God, the image of God, and she bears it uniquely and beautifully, but it can only be seen from sitting alongside.
These women we love, myself alongside a small cluster of friends, may never leave. For some it’s because drugs are getting the last word every day, for others it’s a lack of education and a dire need to feed one’s children. But we will have communion in a strip club.
Next to a stage we have chosen not to compete with, we will spread out casseroles and roasted vegetables and fresh rolls and caesar salad. We will sup over pies and spaghetti that remind many of family reunions and Sunday lunch after church.
Because we believe the incarnational love of God is passed through a shared meal.
Because a bridge cannot be built from one side.
It is one thing, indeed, to behold the ocean from shore. It is another thing entirely to behold the ocean from its depth. Walking toward the foam, amongst empty shells, abandoned homes, feeling the sand squish between our toes is something else from flailing beneath the surface of the sea, not knowing which way is up or which way is down. All that’s seen is light—a cloudy sun struggling to find us in the black waters. All that’s heard is the ticking clock we carry in our souls, though we scarcely think of it. Perspective. The truth of it is we live our lives from both. Never did I think my lifeblood would run through strip clubs.
None of us did.
The waves had other ideas.
Betsy is a little girl and an old soul with a fondness for all things sweet potato. A Tennessee native scuttling through Boston, Massachusetts pursuing a Masters in Divinity. Learning to pay attention to God in the daily grit of human life while writing tiny awakenings along her strolls. She blogs at heavens2betsyc.wordpress.com.
Image credit: Sarah Northway