I felt my scalp starting to burn, but I said nothing because it hadn’t been long enough. If I said something now, she would be forced to wash my hair, and then it might not work. I had been told repeatedly that this took patience, that beauty equaled some pain and sacrifice, that it was normal to experience the burn, as long as it was bearable. I wouldn’t say anything now; I hadn’t sat through 40 minutes of my hairdresser tearing apart the knots in my hair and painting on the chemicals to then find that my roots still had texture. But what was really “bearable?” And for what purpose? Over and over, I was told that relaxing, or chemically straightening my hair, would make it “easier” to handle. Only now do I even notice the language of it all. It is called a relaxer because it removes the tensed structure that creates a curl. It is relaxed from its uptight state, as if to be medicated for anxiety. Curls were difficult, so I was told.
I was 10 years old the first time I got my hair relaxed. No one ever forced the fifth grade me to straighten or relax my hair. Not my hairdresser, not my mother. It was suggested and offered, not forced. The concept that we as a society and the Church often fail to realize is that culture doesn’t force anything upon us—it just makes the popular opinion irresistible. We make the choice to conform and submit to the ideals around us when our identity foundation is unstable. It didn’t have to be suggested that straight hair was considered more beautiful—it was obvious to me by the fact that no one I knew wore curls. If they did, they were brushed out to shockingly voluminous proportions in the ponytail, and smoothed against our heads in the front with layers of product. My friend’s hair started to thin and recede at the hairline prematurely as an adolescent due to the intensity of effort to pull and flatten her hair against her head.
Our mothers taught us what they knew. Though immigrants from Egypt (a country where most people carry dominant-gene curls), they were not immune in their younger years to the fluctuations of fashion trends abroad: flat and straight 70s hair, and Farrah Fawcett volume of the 80s. And despite the fact that curls and waves still dominate genetically over all natural hair textures and among ethnicities, confusion for how to “handle” them reigns king. I heard subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at curly hair. When hair was worn curly or allowed to frizz (as if it had a choice), we Egyptian girls were called “cambousha,” or very loosely translated as “messy girl.” It was considered unprofessional to leave hair unstraightened. These messages (straight hair is “easier,” curls are “messy”) came from people I loved, from strangers, and from the spoken and unspoken rules of beauty in our culture. As well-intentioned as the commenters sometimes were, they perpetuated inaccurate beliefs about worthiness. The beauty standards we ascribe to chain our identities to the opinions of the world, not the truth of our creative Maker.
After I moved away from home and got married, my hair care was up to me. No longer were my parents paying for my visits to the salon, and I certainly was not planning to pay to spend hundreds of dollars every several months to relax the roots of my hair. Not to mention, I grew tired of the process and the grey scabs that appeared on my head as the chemicals bore through my skin to alter protein growing from my scalp. For some time, I attempted a few more hair smoothing options that were more “natural” compared to the chemical relaxer – all which made me increasingly frustrated and exhausted with the effort I was going through to change my hair to fit what I thought was most beautiful. I began to question why I had gone through it all to begin with. Was it truly easier? Not when I still straightened my hair daily. Who was I doing it for? On many days, it was clear I was not doing it for myself, it was to make sure I was presentable for others. Out of convenience, I made a decision that I would “go natural.” What began as a decision of convenience became an opportunity for Jesus to reveal matters of my heart far beyond scalp deep—matters of vanity, pride, idolatry, and identity.
Once I decided to “go natural,” I noticed an avalanche of overwhelm overcome me. There were thousands of products to try. Facebook groups were established to compare products, hair application techniques, the history and evolution of American beauty standards, and discuss the chemistry of hair. Who knew that curl patterns had numbers, categorizations, porosity levels, risk of protein overload and hydral fatigue (what!?). I bought dozens of products to test. I felt like a pubescent girl again, trying to establish a hygiene routine when in fact, here I was, a grown woman in her late 20s attempting an image change after a decade and a half of mastery with chemicals and a flat iron. Yet, with research and dedication, I persisted through, completely simplified my routine, and felt a freedom in embracing myself as God had created me. On one hand, it was only just hair—a physical part of me—but what I was committing to in my heart was a freedom from conforming to what the world deemed worthy. Choosing my natural hair was first an attempt for convenience, but became an experiment in self-image, and eventually became an act of surrender.
I was foolish enough at the beginning of the process to believe that I would be free of vanity after making the change. In theory, I no longer cared whether people thought my hair should be straight or not. We must remember that the Enemy is on the front lines ready to help us replace one idol or insecurity with another — in my case, replacing physical vanity and insecurity with a sense of pride and superiority for having “overcome” my vanity. Yet, there I sat at my computer on Black Friday, obsessing over deals for hair product bundles. I had made my hair my idol when I was straightening it, and I had made my hair my idol when I went curly. It had captured my attention, once again, but at the opposite extreme. I started feeling proud of the compliments I received. I felt like I was representing my Egyptian-ness with my curls, and grew in pride as I set myself apart physically from others while living in the not-so-diverse South. This was exchanging one flavor of pride for another, all to counteract the deep misunderstanding I had of my identity in Christ.
What I learned from all of this was that identity, idolatry, and pride are interconnected. Identity, defined on our own, will put us in a straightjacket. We begin to idolize the roles that we have placed on ourselves or have absorbed by the world. We become tied to these identities – mother, wife, teacher, architect, Egyptian girl with the curly hair. We become orphaned as we chase the leadership of the world and are left unfulfilled. Identity, defined by our Creator, gives us freedom. We are called chosen, royal, holy (1 Peter 2:9). We are set apart (2 Timothy 2:21) not by our ethnicity, heritage, or job, but set apart through our holiness and usefulness to do the Master’s work. We have freedom because our identity is not in how we look, what we do, or how well we do it, but that we are allowed to be used as tools to reveal the creativity and diversity of God’s image through surrender to His plan for us.
The Bible tells us a few things about beauty:
“Your beauty should not come from an outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” – 1 Peter 3:3-4 (NIV)
“I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.” –1 Timothy 2:9-10 (NIV)
Note that neither of them says that physical beauty and self-care need be entirely rejected, nor inherently sinful. In fact—I am still proud of the fact that my hair represents some semblance of my Egyptian heritage and reflects the diversity of the Creator. Instead, the writers of these scriptures comment on our value: we are not beautiful or worthy because of our bodies and how we decorate them (though God desires for us to admire and care for His creations), but we are beautiful because of what God has planted within us. Being made in the image of God does not just literally mean physically reflecting the image of God with our diversity and expression. To me, it also means reflecting the image and person of God as “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy” (Philippians 4:8 NIV).
At the end of the day, my hair is just my hair. Liberating my outside through surrender means nothing if I do not also liberate my inside. Our pastor once said in a sermon that if God is not sovereign over everything in our lives, then He is sovereign over nothing. And though my hair is just my hair, I do believe that my willingness to surrender some of my hair worship, so-to-speak, allowed God to show me more about the other sins of my heart and to redirect and correct what I thought I knew about my identity.
Our God is a God of the biggest and smallest details. He could and did use my hair to teach me. In this case, God also used cultural beauty standards, even in its most imperfect form, to work on my heart. In his book Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning recounts a story of a series of coincidences using thread, tie clips, and room keys, which opened his eyes to what he calls the “present risenness” of Jesus. He says, “If the Father of Jesus monitors every sparrow that drops from the sky and every hair that falls from our heads, perhaps it is not beneath His risen Son to dabble in room keys, monogrammed tie clips, and squibbles of thread (p. 84). What started with a burn of the scalp, and the relaxation of my hair, ultimately moved me on the progressive path to wholeness through better understanding of myself and of my Father. I’m so grateful that God dabbled in my hair experiments. And if you’re wondering, I still love my curly hair.
“Please tell me you’re having a boy.”
I read concern and maybe a little disgust on the waitress’s face as she surveyed by belly, 9 months ripe.
My husband quickly met my eyes, doing a quick read on my reaction. Our three daughters continued coloring happily on their kids menus. I was buried deeply in the booth, smushed on all sides by the beloved people with whom I get to do everyday life.
Although it was far from the first time I had been addressed this way, it still caught me off guard and a laugh escaped my lips.
“Nope!” I replied with a smile.
She proceeded to turn to my husband. “Man, I feel sorry for you.”
“Don’t!” he immediately responded.
She shrugged and walked away to fill our drink orders.
I wonder why comments like these are so commonplace. Is there a cultural understanding that a ‘successful’ or ‘good’ life must include children of both genders? Should there ever be a lack of gratitude for an amazing gift?
“Since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks.” 1 Timothy 4:4
“Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18
“And whatever you do or say, do it was a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.” Colossians 3:17
Our waitress obviously did not grasp the magnitude of the miraculous blessing growing in my womb. She was unaware of the journey I have been on and how undeserving I am of the life I am every day gifted to live.
Discontentment is contagious. So is gratitude. Let’s be careful which we are spreading.
“In every encounter, we either give life or we drain it. There is no neutral exchange.” Brennan Manning
It seemed like rich, soft soil
in this heart I carried ‘round
But when the Gardener’s spade hit,
He struck a hardened ground.
He continued to throw his shovel
breaking chunks off with each blow
Unsatisfied He was
with leaving this plot so shallow.
The pain spurred tears of anger,
of grief, embarrassment
Then new drops of humility
finally were spent.
The Gardener didn’t mind the water,
in fact he used its spray
The tears provided softness
to the hardened dirt and clay.
The Gardener kept on digging
deep and wider than before
Good plans he’d made for this claimed lot
much harvest was in store.
He encountered rocks and weeds
that had settled in their place
But lovingly he pulled each up
to clear a fertile space
They kept his seeds from going deep
whose roots they must run wild
He tugged each weed up by the root,
untainting soil defiled.
I could resist my Gardener,
withhold my tears in pride
Or cling to rocks and all the weeds
I try so hard to hide
I could focus on my neighbor’s soil
and keep a detailed list
Maybe point out to the Gardener
their rough spots that he missed
But if I trust his work in me
I’ll focus on my own
I’ll let the tears pour softly down
Let him expose each stone
For all of us have rocky spots
Eve’s daughters and her sons
Let him who doesn’t cast the first
at us, the sinful ones
The Gardener’s hand is full of seeds
he gently tosses down
Like pebbles on the earth
that will emerge as jewels in crowns
There will be seasons of waiting,
of pruning and more rain
But good crops are beginning
with deep roots that will sustain
The Gardener smiles at his work,
His promises fulfilled
He just needed unkempt soil
that was willing to be tilled.
A revelation came to me a few weeks ago as we sang the ending to one of my favorite hymns: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart, oh, take and seal it. Seal it for Thy courts above”.
The revelation was this: I am a wanderer.
As I reflect back, I can see I’ve wandered many times in my 30 years. But one time I wandered farther than I ever had before. Far into the darkness. And then I stayed there.
I was in college the first time I ran from my faith. Though I’d been to church nearly every Sunday since I was born, I did not have a deep foundation nor a relationship with God. Without this connection, church and all it demanded became nothing more than a boring hobby, and it was all too easy for me to walk (or run) away from something my heart wasn’t invested in. I began searching elsewhere for false comfort and answers. In hindsight I can now see how this decision started to darken all areas of my life, in school, in relationships, and in my heart. I became used to the darkness, and it was filled with bitterness, anger, alcohol, and depression.
After years of running aimlessly, a non-Christian friend of mine took me out to dinner, looked me in the eyes, and said, “I think you need Jesus back in your life.” The best way I can describe this experience was like driving a car at full speed and crashing head-on into a barricade. For the first time in years my world came to a screeching stop, and I was finally still enough to look at my life and realize how deep into the darkness I had wandered.
I wish I could tell you that next day I was a new person who rededicated my life and never looked back. The reality is this was a slow process and just one step of many to start transforming my heart and bringing me back to my Almighty Father. I graduated and started seeking God with the urgency of someone who’d been caught on fire. Though I had this new passion, I was still overwhelmed with guilt and shame for my season of running. As I began to dig into the bible, I was surprised and relieved to see that several of the influential people God chose to grow His kingdom were wanderers too. Look at Jacob, Moses, Jonah, Paul, and even Peter, to name a few. But one of my favorite bible stories about wandering is Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.
In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of a son who selfishly runs away from his father to worship the god’s of idolatry with his “wild living”. In this story we often focus on the sins of the son who left, or the jealousy of the son who stayed and was unaware of all the gifts he already possessed. But what about the response of the Father in the story? What about the overwhelming joy and open arms of his Father that are given before the son even explains why he left or why he returned; before he even asks for forgiveness? What amazing news this is, and what an overwhelming love!
“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.”
Brennan Manning explains, “The gospel of grace announces, Forgiveness precedes repentance. The sinner is accepted before he pleads for mercy. It is already granted. He need only receive it. Total amnesty. Gratuitous pardon. What a word of encouragement, consolation, and comfort! We don’t have to sift our hearts and analyze our intentions before returning home. Abba just wants us to show up.”
Matt Chandler puts it this way, “The marker of those who understand the gospel of Jesus Christ is that, when they stumble and fall, when they screw up, they run to God and not from Him, because they clearly understand that their acceptance before God is not predicated upon their behavior but on the righteous life of Jesus Christ and his sacrificial death.”
I feel compelled to share how easy it can be to fall into the trap of saying you are “saved” when in reality there’s no depth to your faith, nor a living relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s taken me several years to realize church attendance does not equate to spiritual growth and maturity. What came through my wandering was a yearning for a deeper love, which required me to learn how to become more honest and self-aware of my intentions and my sins. The result has been a more genuine faith than I ever had before I strayed.
- Have you ever run and felt stuck in the darkness? Are you there right now?
- Do you believe in your heart that He has not forgotten about you? Why or why not?
- What scares you about returning to your Father?
- Do you know you can never go too far that He will not accept you, that He will stop searching for you?
- What does it mean to you to have a living relationship with God, and what step(s) do you need to take to start or deepen that relationship?
When I was once in the darkness, I felt so alone. I see now that I have never been alone, and I never will be. I have taped up bible verses like Romans 8 around my house to help remind me that “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love”. As my love and understanding for God grows, the less I wander. Though I doubt the darkness will never call again, I now know God will never give up fighting to bring me back to Him. He sings over the other voices:
“Even if you run away from me,Jess Ray “Runaway”
over the mountains through the valleys
I will not rest but search east and west
to bring you back with me
Even if you stomp and scream and huff,
tell me that I’m not good enough
I’ll take every swing and every blow,
until you know my love.
Even if you beat upon my chest,
tell me that you don’t understand,
I will love you and teach you to love me again,
I’m gonna love you and teach you to love me again”
Suddenly it was more than just a movie night.
I looked down from the screen with tear filled eyes. Despite my lack of golden locks, I felt a strong connection to Rapunzel. I had forgotten my true identity. The enemy had lured me away and used fear to convince me to stay in captivity. He spoke lies that he had my best interest at heart. My God-given powers and gifts were wasted for years serving his demands.
But something in me had always been a bit unsettled. I was curious, wondering when my life would really begin. I performed the usual routine activities on repeat as days turned into years. In attempts to go deeper, I served at church, read Scripture, and participated in small groups, but all without getting too vulnerable.
While I was guardedly seeking, God was also pursuing me. In His creation, in songs, in my unquenchable thirst for purpose, He was launching His light into the sky to beckon me home.
In what felt like a hopeful impulse, I finally took a small leap out of security. “Search me and know me, Lord,” I prayed. “Test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me in the path of everlasting life.”
He answered with an adventure I could never have imagined.
In the movie, Rapunzel’s journey to the kingdom also took an unexpected turn. She eventually rejoined her mother in their tower, betrayed and heartbroken. She believed her original fears of the outside world had been confirmed. “I tried to warn you,” her mother cooly and confidently affirmed, satisfied that this would quell any future attempts at escape.
Lying on her bed Rapunzel gazed up at the ceiling she had spent her life painting. This time something caught her attention- the royal crest of the kingdom scattered all throughout her work. Her reality began to unravel as she realized she had been subconsciously painting the symbol of her true identity all over the walls of the prison she called home. She was not simply a girl living with a mother who was trying to protect her. She was the lost princess!
Much like Rapunzel, it took deep, personal heartbreak for God to begin to open my eyes. Now I saw the unquestionable evidence all around me. It had leaked out in the voids of my own efforts, my own attempts at painting the walls of my heart searching for significance and worthiness and loveliness. I put up more strokes of paint every time I tried to earn love and acceptance from sources that could never really provide it. There in my works was a Christ-shaped hole that I had never noticed before. I wondered now how I could have ever missed it.
One thing I did know was that I couldn’t go back to the old way of living.
In the fairy tale movie, it took 18 years for Rapunzel to realize she was actually royalty living in captivity. It took me 31 years! It takes some soul searching to assess.
- Have you ever wondered when your life will really take off?
- Is there a longing in you to be part of something bigger?
- Have you dreamed of an “if only”, completely fresh start?
- Are you worried you might be missing your real purpose?
What if these longings are lights in your heart from the Kingdom, hoping you won’t settle for a false life of captivity?
- Do you know you have an enemy?
- Have you heard his subtle lies whispered in your ear? They are often disguised as rational half-truths that confirm your fears.
- “Look at you, fragile and unqualified. Maybe soon, but not yet. Something will probably go wrong. Skip the drama and stay where you are.”
Your discovery that you are secretly royalty is a threat to him.
- Do you spend time painting your tower?
- Are you happy with how well you fit in the “right” crowd?
- Do your actions and choices reveal your needs for certain clothing, makeup, body shape, houses, cars, vacations, relationships, manicured nails and front lawns, resumes and connections?
- When you’re disappointed and fear or pain rise to the surface, do you expect one of these “needs” to comfort the cross-shaped hole in your life?
As scary as it may be, honest answers to these questions can be the first step on our adventure toward the King who is calling us home!
“So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, “Abba, Father.” For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.” (Romans 8:15-17)
“You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)