Some blog posts are written and posted in the same hour. Others, I sit on for a day or two before making public. This post is so dear to my heart, I originally wrote it months ago and am now reforming it with my continued process (and it is lengthy enough to prove it). I don’t have community all figured out, but I do have some passionate thoughts and incredible experiences with it that I’d like to share:
I have found that the word “community” is too vague for all the meanings it carries for me. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone and my community was filled with judgmental attitudes and left me feeling unsafe to make mistakes or show my weaknesses. After leaving home for college, my community became the people I socialized with at school. They loved to party as much as I did and our bonds were built on agreement of fun and kept very surface. After marrying Brett and heading to the NFL, my community became NFL wives. We all had a common plight, we knew the unglamorous side to pro football and we had the ability to validate each other’s hardships while the world accused us of having the “perfect life”.
These communities I described were all inner circles of people that I did daily life with. People I faced in the workplace, classroom, in stores and at events. For years, I lived my day-to-day life with people that I kept at bay and carefully chose which parts of me you could know and see. Very few people (like three total) were let into my most inner circle and shown my weaknesses. In fact, I enjoyed that I didn’t have to be vulnerable with people- I could selectively choose who knew what about me for a long time. I remember having a neighbor who really hurt me when we lived in Ohio. Instead of choosing to pursue any kind of reconciliation, my thought was, “Oh well, we’ll be moving soon anyway and I’ll never have to see her again.” (Mental facepalm). Let me give context: we moved a total of 14 times in 7 years because of football. If Brett and I wanted to have friends and community, we had to dive in quickly because those people could be gone in a matter of months, sometimes weeks. There were times we tried too hard and scared people away. There were times we didn’t put ourselves out there enough and spent months with a team, lonely. We tried everything.
By the time we found our current church in 2011, we were a bit traumatized in the community department. We felt everyone we met would “want” something from us. We had experienced the football super fans, the people who think we owe them free tickets and memorabilia simply because he’s a player, and those who just wanted to show others they knew you. As we started the school of ministry, we began to dive deeply with our small groups and leaders. We found a place of safety to share our pain and mistakes. As we let people into our private lives, they didn’t use and abuse us, but instead celebrated and loved us. By 2012, I began praying intentionally and asked the Lord to send me a “best friend”. Around the same time, the Lord asked me to share Brett and my testimony of our marriage issues at church. Only a few people in the world knew that story and it felt like the biggest risk EVER to put it out there for people to hear, judge, criticize, and spread. I was shaking as I told the PG version of our story to our congregation. Afterward, countless people began to come thank us for sharing and said they had a similar story. I was shocked.
Opening up to others in a way that they could really know me seemed like the worst thing in the world for so long. Partly this was a learned behavior but some of it was due to trauma. When I was 19, I struggled with depression and a boyfriend who treated me terribly. My coping mechanism at the time was alcohol and I eventually drank far too much for far too long and decided ending my life was better than facing the pain. I tried to commit suicide one night and he found me unconscious and without a pulse. I was taken to the hospital where doctors worked tirelessly resuscitating me and by the time I miraculously regained consciousness, the entire town had been informed of my actions by the 911 dispatcher who I’d gone to high school with, as she had found it worthy of risking her job to share the gossip. I spent a few days in ICU and each day hospital employees who worked with my mom would come in and berate me for my actions, telling me I’d shamed my parents and my actions could never be forgiven. My experience of people knowing my mistakes was a nightmare. Opening up my life for others to see the less attractive parts was not my dream. Keeping on my masks seemed far more appealing for a long time.
In 2012, Brett finished his football career with the Buccaneers. When he played his final game, we wanted to head back to Nashville, to our church community, with every ounce of our hearts. There we had found unconditional acceptance. The leaders there knew our shortcomings and loved us anyway. Within this community, we were no longer “the quarterback and his wife” but known solely as Brett and Shailey. We moved back to Nashville and worked on getting jobs and settled. By 2013, we were asked to lead and host a Life Group. This meant we would open our home to other couples every week and do intimate life with them. This meant further vulnerability in daily life, not just the context and safety of ministry school. We said “yes” before we could chicken out. Within a couple weeks, we had seven other couples coming to our home every week to discuss marriage and parenting and every other intimate topic young couples face today. As we worked through each chapter of a study we did, Holy Spirit would ask Brett and I to share our story and what we’d been through. At first, I was filled with fear that we were overwhelming others and were too dramatic. But as time went by, the other couples began to confide in us the struggles they were facing. I began to see that our vulnerability was breeding more vulnerability. It was creating a safe place to not have it all together but to be in process.
Having the freedom to be in process and fully accepted is exactly what Jesus modeled for us with His disciples. He chose the people around him who were not qualified and often even social outcasts. In our world today, we would look to people with a shiny platform, millions of “followers” and who are well put together and call them “leaders”. However, that wasn’t the standard Jesus used to form His community of intimate relationships. He chose ordinary people and walked out intimate life with them day-to-day. He corrected them when needed, loved them unconditionally, and pressed in when He knew they’d betray or deny Him. Jesus’ idea of covenant relationship is a whole new level than what we do today. But what if we’re called to that kind of relationship? The kind where we press in continually. Where our connection is based on understanding and love, not agreement.
We have now been hosting our Life Group for over three years. Couples have come and gone, seasons have shifted and we’ve changed how we run it. But we love it. The other couples who attend regularly have become some of our closest friends. We are all now parents and are digging through the trenches of parenthood together. We challenge each other to press into our marriages, we sympathize with each other’s struggles and we pray for one another. We rarely agree in our opinions, but it doesn’t matter as we all seek to understand one another, not agreement. It is a group of people who truly bring me life. I am 100% transparent and vulnerable with them, and they are the same with me. It hasn’t come quickly, its taken time to gain trust, but it is absolutely worth it. Recently, the Lord gave me a revelation about this group/season that rocked my world.
Last year, our group consisted of five couples who all got pregnant within five consecutive months. Each of us ladies was due one after another. Due dates fell in June, July, August, September, and I was due with our son, Timothy, in October. By April 2015, we were dealing with the loss of our beloved son. The other couples in our Life Group were those who showed up in our living room with their pregnant bellies to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I am here.” Couples who’ve been in our group in the past were included in the people who helped us make Timothy’s Celebration of Life service happen on such short notice. Those people, staff members, and other amazing people at our church were the ones who showed up and were there for us (as well as our family, obviously). Our hearts were broken but we pressed on. June came and the babies in our Life Group began to arrive. By August we knew we were expecting our daughter, Evelyn, and were excited to be a part of the expectant parents again. It is still a process though, and the babies kept coming and every week, all the new parents and new babies would show up in our house and I would face the loss of our son that should have been, over and over. In many ways, all the babies, all the showers, all the constant baby talk felt inescapable. But I tried to stay encouraged, knowing my time would come! Then, in October, when I should have been giving birth to our son, we found out we’d also lost our daughter Evelyn. It all seemed too much. The pain, the heartache, the grief- it was too big for a person to bear. And to make it worse, as all my closest friends showed up to comfort us, they had living babies with them, the same babies my children should have been growing up with. I questioned ending, or at least taking a break from, our Life Group more than once. Thursdays felt like a torture session in my own home. I didn’t know if I could bare it.
But God kept encouraging me to press in. Multiple times, the group would show up and ask how we were doing and before I knew it, the whole night had passed and all that had happened was Brett and I bawling and losing it before them and it ending in them praying for us. This made me uncomfortable because now I felt like they were showing up to the Brett and Shailey Grief Show. But the other couples reassured us again and again they loved us and wanted to be here. When we conceived our sixth child, the couples in our Life Group were the first to know, first to celebrate with us, and those who prayed with us through every “scare”. One night, when they all arrived for Life Group, I was so sick I just sat in the corner dry heaving over a trash can. Each woman took a turn getting me a cold cloth, praying for me, and encouraging me. This was SO vulnerable and difficult to let them love on me, but I was so physically weak, I had to simply receive.
Recently, I have been processing with the Lord about the past two years and all the difficulty. One of the things that really bothered me is why He let me host a bunch of pregnant couples and their new babies at my home while I went through the death and loss of two of mine. His answer was simple,
“They were a part of your healing process. They were the ‘best friend’ you prayed for. The fact that none of them ever ran away, shied away, or avoided you showed you true love and acceptance no matter your life situation. These relationships modeled unconditional love in response to your discomfort, pain, loss and weakness. They returned to you what you’ve been building in vulnerable, deep, covenant relationship. This was a part of your healing.”
These same women recently threw me a baby shower of sorts called a Mother’s Blessing. Their attention to detail was astounding. They intentioned to not only shower me with love and celebration, but they took the time to recognize me as a mother of six children and bless me in all that encompasses. Every detail from the food served, the blessing spoken, the decor and the things they asked to guests to prepare to bless me, blew me away. These women know me intimately. They have seen my good, bad and ugly and still choose me. They are Jesus with skin on in my daily world and I am forever grateful.
I know now the Lord wasn’t just pointing to the healing of our child loss, but the healing of all the rejection and hurts we’ve received over the years. Yes, pressing into imperfect people will guarantee you pain and disappointment. However, I now see that that process of intimate relationship with others is exactly what grows, refines, shapes and molds us into deep lovers and makes us reflect more of Him. If you’re still reading this, I am guessing you too are looking for people who will love and accept you unconditionally. Instead, BE a person who loves and accepts without condition. Don’t go looking for the perfect people, be the person you would want to be in relationship with. The Golden Rule will absolutely lead you to a place of loving people that will disappoint and hurt you, but you reap what you sow. Sow unconditional love. Even though sharing who you really are is super scary and hard, the community you build around you is waiting for you to be you, so they can be them. Invite Jesus to lead you, guide you and teach you how to love as He loves, and you’ll find there is amazing fruit awaiting. It will take time, and everything you have, but it is absolutely worth everything you pour into it.