A few years ago, I heard an interview on NPR with the founder of the “PostSecret Project.” PostSecret was started in 2004 by Frank Warren as a project where people mail in their secrets completely anonymously written on one side of a homemade postcard to Warren’s address in Germantown, MD. He posts the anonymous secrets on his blog. The response to the project was so strong that he has now published books with the anonymous secrets, and there are traveling exhibits of the cards themselves.
Warren started with a simple invitation for folks to mail in a secret they had been keeping. He was flooded with thousands of people’s secrets written so simply. The ones I heard ranged from secrets as simple as the guilt over stealing penny candy as a child – to hurting one’s child or even committing murder and never getting caught. People reported committing adultery, allowing another person to receive the blame for something they had actually done, betraying friends, committing petty crimes regularly just for the thrill, lying to bosses, lying to parents, and cheating on important exams. Secret-tellers, ages 8 to 80, laid bare their fears, hopes, regrets, and desires.
Some of the secrets made me laugh really hard, like the one that said, “I hate working as a janitor for arrogant rich people so I clean their computer keyboards with the toilet brush.” Some secrets made me cry, and made my heart ache. Like the man who admitted to having two wives, two separate families who knew nothing about each other.
Why is it medicine for the soul to share one’s secret? Why is it like balm to hear another’s confession – even a very painful one? I have to admit that I sort of felt better about myself as a human; my own secrets didn’t seem so bad relative to the many I heard. The point of the project is not to fascinate and tantalize by the confessions of “bad” people, but to reveal the depth of fear, shame that we all share. It’s been wisely said, “You are as sick as your darkest secret.” How true. What we hold within us takes hold of us. Carrying a secret feels like the lead vest the dentist puts on us before X-rays. Telling our secret feels like the breath-sucking vest has been lifted off.
I would guess that 99% of humans have carried or are carrying a secret inside. To the one percent, God bless you. Why do we keep them inside? Because to share the secret makes us feel ashamed. Shame is a powerful, powerful emotion that keeps us living behind a wall, isolated from others and alone with ourselves.
It’s as if we all live by a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. So many of us fear the outright perceived horror that if others found out who we really are, we’d lose everything. Maybe your secret does not produce the same magnitude of fear that many people have before they come out of the proverbial closet. But for many, life becomes living with the fear of being out-ed.
Frederick Buechner, a wise man, in his book Telling Secrets said, “I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition-that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.”
Our deepest fears and our most precious secrets are, counter-intuitively, the most humanly universal.
I’ve said it before: truth telling is why we have the Confession of Sin in our worship service each week. It’s a small way of taking off the lead vest and creating breathing space while we worship God. We narrow the perceived chasm between us and God, and us and others. Through honest confession of our debts, our trespasses, we allow space for others to do so too. When we forgive our debtors and those who trespass against us, forgiveness can be mutual.
Think about Jacob. Jacob was a man on the run carrying a rucksack full of secrets. If he had written into the PostSecret project, his 4 x 6 card would have said something like this: “I conspired with my mother and stole my twin brother’s birthright by lying to my blind father. Now I am running for my life.” Jacob was a man with a monstrous secret and was in the literal and figurative wilderness bearing the suffering he had caused his family.
Jacob, the fugitive, stopped to sleep, and the only comfort he found was on the hard ground with a stone for a pillow. Some comfort. But Jacob slept. Maybe he tossed and turned. Maybe it was a fretful sleep. Or, maybe Jacob was a man who did not have a sensitive conscience. Perhaps he slept very well that night. We do know that he dreamt quite a dream. A dream that linked heaven and earth, full of angels, going up and down a ladder, or more correctly translated from the Hebrew, a ramp. In the midst of his own darkness, Jacob was given a dream that allowed him to see a ramp that connected him with the heavenly realm. He was in a “thin place.”
The ramp lead up and down to the heavenly realm, but most importantly, the text says, God was present beside the ramp. Not just messengers of God were present, but God was with Jacob. The radical message of God is that it is exactly in that deepest place, where our fears sit heavy in the pit, where God resides too. God is sitting right there beside the stone in our hearts where we think we have successfully hidden our shame.
Sometimes it is precisely in the night, in our darkness, in the spaciousness of the wilderness, that formless future, that opens up a new world and a new vision of reality.
Sometimes it takes, as poet David Whyte puts is, “the sweet confinement of your aloneness to learn that the world was made to be free in.” In the middle of the darkest of nights, God appears unexpectedly and offers us a different life-one we cannot even begin to imagine ourselves.
Jacob certainly was at in-between time, a threshold, in his life. On the run from a dark place toward an uncertain future. The darkest times can be the loam in which real growth can happen. The darkness can offer us a cocooning time – like the chrysalis that exists between crawling and flying.
Maybe experiencing depression or melancholy can be o.k. (Now, hear me: I in no way mean to play down the reality of depression and the need for medical attention when one suffers from it.) But maybe it’s exactly those dimmer times that are needed for our becoming deeper people. Our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous wisely tell us that it’s often when a person hits his or her own version of “rock bottom” that allows them to come out from behind the isolating wall.
There is a kind of humiliation that happens when we finally give up the secret and get honest with ourselves. We return to the ground of our being. In the word humiliation is the root word for humus. Dirt. Soil. Earthiness.
Being on the ground poses the raw and base questions of our lives: Who am I? What am I doing? What am I called to do with my life? To what or to whom do I commit my life?
It’s fascinating that throughout the Bible people used stones as symbols of answers to these heart and soul questions. Stones marked vows made at pivotal points in the character’s journey. Stones are still used to testify to something profound or even life-changing occurring. How many of you have a stone you’ve brought home from some special place or experience that helps you hold onto that event? When you see it, it has become for you a tangible marker of something meaningful. Am I right?
On the morning of our wedding day, Tim and I went out to one of our favorite parks in Seattle called Discovery Park. It overlooks the Puget Sound. We went out to the edge of a cliff where a very large stone sat – and I imagine still sits. The stone looked like it had been on the edge of that cliff for many, many years and wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. We prayed and dedicated our marriage at the site of that stone that morning, December 13, 1986, nearly 25 years ago. It became our own anointed pillar symbolizing our vows.
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place-and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Beth-el.
The LORD, the God of Jacob’s grandfather Abraham and father Isaac, showed up in the barren place which actually turned out to be Beth-el-Hebrew for “The house of God.” The place Jacob least expected to receive a visit from God became the gate of heaven.
Who expects God to show up when you have just been the ugliest of human beings? Not only does God show up, God gives the promise of a constant and abiding relationship. “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” the Lord promised to that wily and cunning man. In the midst of Jacob’s shame, doubt, fear and arrogance, a promise was made because God sees through the self we present to the world right down into the heart of who we are.
It wasn’t as if Jacob had been begging for forgiveness, pleading for mercy, promising never to repeat his shameful behavior. God’s unearned promise to be with Jacob – God’s promise to be with us – is never based on our good behavior; God’s promise of sticking with us and even using us for God’s work here on earth is based on who God is.
We can’t fully imagine what was going on with Jacob that night. The important question is: Who is this God who shows up in the least likely of places? A God who stands near to us in the secrets we keep. A God who stays close to the ground with us, down in the dirt with us, when we are at rock-bottom.
Rocky places and stony paths can be our hard places, the hard people, the hard situations that bring us agonizing discomfort.
But the good news is the same yesterday, today and forever: God can take what has been the pillow of hardship, and turn that hard place into a holy place. It is God who pours oil on our stories, our secrets, and turns them into a pillar of blessing.