God Is in the Waves

Mallory WyckoffBy Mallory Wyckoff18 Minutes

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God Is in the Waves

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You are not small.
Your foremothers did not do what they did so you could occupy small!

—Malebo Sephodi

 

This is, as they call it, my “Jesus year.” I am thirty-three years old. I am a mother of two small girls, living in a city that loves country music and Southern food. I could do without both (unless Kacey Musgraves counts, in which case, I like country music). I’ve never been very good at math but if we keep things simple and project my lifetime to be ninety-nine years, I’m one third of the way through. This takes my breath away a bit. No one, as far as I know, much likes considering how much closer they are to death than the last time they checked. But if it’s really a Jesus year and I manage to make it past thirty-three, I suppose I’m doing alright.

I spend much of my time looking back. I’d much rather walk backward and accidentally bump into death than have him in sight the entire time I make my way down a long hallway. Nobody, I mean nobody, knows how to handle that situation: How long are we supposed to look down at the floor? When is the right moment to look up? Who acknowledges whom first? (And while we’re at it when are we supposed to use “who” and when is it “whom”?)

So I look back, and when I do, I see all of the Mallorys that came before: the baby with bleached blonde hair and tan skin, the five-year- old girl with one dimple and baby teeth, the preteen with bangs (oh, God, the bangs), the emo-enough-to-hang-but-I-still-do-my-homework teenager, the high schooler “on fire for God,” the responsible college student ready to change the world, the bride who forgot to buy wedding shoes, the idealist twenty-something beginning her career, the bags-under-her-eyes mama with a newborn hangover, and the one sitting here, smelling my sea salt candle and researching my first tattoo—which, incidentally, still feels a lot like the emo-enough-to-hang-but-I-still-do-my-homework Mallory. (If my predictions are correct, the next version of myself will be best friends with Justin Timberlake and Oprah, and I’m really excited to meet that Mallory and summer in the Hamptons with my pals.)

I love all of these Mallorys. I needed all of them. I did not leap my way to thirty-three, managing to avoid bad haircuts and regrettable boyfriends; I expanded my way through each and every phase. Some days I shed skin like a reptile. Some days I tried on a new wardrobe to see how it hugged my frame. And at every turn, I grew more fully into my truest self, including all that came before and transcending it. I feel a bit breathless at this altitude, this third-of-life lookout point where I have enough road behind me to make deep reflection worthwhile and miles ahead of me yet to go. But I’m expanding my lungs and inhaling deeply.

This expansion of self has been equal parts painful—the shedding, the releasing, the subtracting—and blissful—the embracing, the accepting, the growing. But I’ve known no other option. To stop evolving is to die. The fundamental energies of the universe move it forward, as famed twentieth-century paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin reminded us. I have felt that Fundamental Energy moving me forward. At this point in life, I know no other way but to ride the waves as they come.

If you’ve watched NBC’s The Good Place,1 you remember the scene of Chidi and Eleanor’s final evening together. They’ve lived their lives on earth, they’ve lived a million lives in the hereafter, and it’s time to move forward. Chidi, typically weighed down by anxiety and brilliance and a crippling inability to make decisions, is uncharacteristically calm. Eleanor doesn’t share his peaceful energy, having opted instead to spend the day rehashing highlights with Chidi and dragging him to his favorite places on earth in hopes of keeping him around. She isn’t ready to let him go.

She knows what has been and doesn’t know what will be, and she wants so much to stay in the now. But there’s an energy pulling Chidi forward, one Eleanor did not create and one she cannot stop. And so at last she relents, and they spend their final evening together looking out over a sunset.

Eleanor: “I was never good at being sad, partly because my mom straight up told me not to be . . . but this is sad, man. You got a John Locke quote or a piece of Kantian wisdom you can throw at me?”

Chidi: “Those guys were more focused on rules and regulations. For spiritual stuff, you gotta turn to the East.”

Eleanor: “I’ll take anything you got. Hit me.”

Chidi: “Picture a wave in the ocean. You can see it, measure it—its height, the way the sunlight refracts when it passes through. It’s there and you can see it and you know what it is. It’s a wave. And then it crashes on the shore, and it’s gone. But the water is still there. The wave was just a different way for the water to be, for a little while.”

Thirty-three years of waves in, I can see them all. I can picture them out in front of me or behind me or within me, whichever it is. I’ve shown up in the world in different ways, in different skin, and the continued expansion of myself grounds me deeper still.

A few years back I attended a spiritual formation retreat where we were asked to reflect on the major movements of our lives. Putting pen to paper, I began to recall some of the waves, to give them names, to see my life laid out in chapters. An exercise like this is equal parts embarrassing and nostalgic but also profoundly helpful.

Eventually we were asked to repeat the exercise, but this time we were to track the waves of our evolving image of God. With crayons and markers, I began to sketch all of the varied ways I have understood and imaged and experienced the Divine. Despite my total ineptitude with anything artistic, the picture that unfolded was perfectly clear: the waves of my own movement and growth in the world have mirrored how God has shown up and taken form in my life.

It’s like two waves in a rhythmic dance, separate from one another but moving as one. In each season of life, with each iteration of myself, I have seen God reflected in multiple lights. I have encountered various images of the God who is all and none of them.

When I was the bleached-blonde, tanned-skin baby Mallory growing up on the beach, God was Father to me. Somehow I managed to win the dad lottery and have only ever known the very best version of a father—one who, while on a family vacation as my brother and cousins dumped bottles of bubble bath into the tub and suds poured out the bathroom door and into the hallway, chose to keep his video camera focused not on the chaos but on my eight-month-old chubby face, gently whispering to me about how much he loved me. When I heard at church that God was our Father, I felt warm and safe. I knew I could crawl in that God’s lap and he would read me books and do all of the voices. I knew I would be protected and fought for and have all of my needs taken care of.

When I connected with a group of friends who were also emo-enough-to-hang-but-still-did-their-homework, I sensed a God who was Friend, pulling me toward relationship and connection. I felt seen by God. Adolescence is an adventure in insincerity, desperately trying on personas until you find the one that gets you accepted into the pack (or at least makes you less of a target). To find real, meaningful connection with a God who seemed interested in spending time with me was no small gift. My connection with this Friend grew, and I grew.

Growing up in a Christian home, school, and church, I heard endless talk about “God’s plan” for my life well before Drake made it cool or Degrassi dominated Canadian airwaves. In small and big decisions alike, I came to know God as Guide, one who helped direct my steps and offered wisdom for how to take them. I knew I wasn’t alone in the world, making my own way in the vast cosmos. I had a caring and knowledgeable Guide that I could trust, who had my best interests in mind.

In high school while I was on a short-term mission trip to Guatemala, my privilege came face-to-face with poverty, and I was undone. I read parts of the Bible I never had seen before, parts that seemed to indicate that God was terribly interested in matters of justice and care for the vulnerable and was not entirely thrilled with those who amass wealth and power. I was both compelled and confused. How had I managed to spend sixteen years in a faith system where this kind of theology was not even a blip on the radar screen? Until that point, I functioned believing that my humanness was sinful. That I needed to be something other than human and gather often with other Christians committed to the same pretense. That salvation was a way of ultimately escaping our humanity. (The terms may not have been so crass but really only slightly less.)

With all of this humanity avoidance, there wasn’t much energy remaining for matters like caring for creation or dismantling oppression. But in a hurricane refugee village in the central highlands of Guatemala, I met a God who was Social Justice Warrior. Inspired by this God, I began to ask questions of everything, slowly at first, gently even, until eventually I was the obnoxious college student asking to meet with my Intro to Theology professor after every class because 7:45 a.m. is the perfect time to discuss the ethics of nonviolence.

My questions led me to seminary, and seminary led me to the God of Deconstructed Presence. I thought it would be a season of building on a twenty-something-year-old foundation, steady and sure. Instead, it was a demolition. My peers and I faced complexities and ambiguities and inconsistencies, and I watched how they responded.

Some could not manage to hold it all, to endure the painful process, and they left. Some remained in the program but dropped out of faith altogether. Others fashioned a sturdy set of blinders and progressed through each course, shoving aside and out of sight everything that threatened their preexisting perspectives.

We all have ways of surviving when we feel threatened, and I am certain some people would rather face a mad gunman than expose their faith to scrutiny. The fear is just too great. I’ve never been immune to this fear; I know what it feels like in my body. But I also knew that half-a**ing this journey could never be an option, that during my time in seminary I had to commit to a deep dive into whatever surfaced as I explored faith. The deconstruction was disorienting and painful, but I was not alone in it. Even when I no longer knew what I meant when I said “God,” I knew this unknown God was present. Deconstructed Presence held space for me, as together we sat in the darkness waiting long enough for a spark of light to emerge.

There have been more Mallorys and more images of God than can be named here. But suffice it to say that my self-exploration has always led me to a deeper and broader experience of myself and of God. I cannot separate these parallel movements any more than I could separate a wave from the ocean.

I’ve set out to write about the expansiveness of God because there are too many energies that resist this notion, that seek to keep God—and humanity—small. I don’t mean God’s size. Plenty of people and Sunday school songs will tell you God has “the whole world” in God’s hands, that God is all-knowing and all-powerful. But behind these grand notions of God’s capabilities tends to lie a small and narrow conception of what God is actually like.

It’s as if many believe that one image of God is sufficient, capable of holding all that we are and all that we will be, able to contain all that God is. But my reality has never reflected that. My journey has included this small God. And my journey has moved me forward. A small God—a small you—has never served the world.

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