El Roi

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Originally published at Deeper Story

There is no story in the Bible I relate to more than that of pregnant Hagar and her downfall in the desert.

I picture her heaving, on hands and knees, her swollen belly grazing against the hot sand. Considering her chances, she stops and surrenders: If I die, then I die. So be it. The weight of Ishmael is so much and she is so thirsty and there is so much further to go. She thinks again: But I could turn back- but to what? To Sarah. Her abuser. Her master turned monster who kidnapped her from her home, forced her into pregnancy, and then chased her off the land in a blind jealous rage.

Then I picture the water. A small trickle springs up out of the sand, wetting a line in the sand right across her path and before she can blink, it is a small stream and she is drinking great gulps from it. She is resting now, in the wilderness, and wondering how far the nearest town is.

Then the sudden presence. The air changes all around her. Feet materialize. A body. A voice. And before she can even see his face, she feels His eyes stilled on her soul. On her. Hagar. An invisible slave girl from Egypt. A girl in the final moments of her life. A nobody.

In a voice weak with compassion, He promises her protection and whispers better days to come–He has heard all her tears.

Hagar raises her eyes to the face of God and cries with disbelief:

“You are the God who sees… me!”

It’s the first time in history a person called God by a new name. A name spoken from the very depths of her heart, summoned out by the truest moment of her life.

El Roi!:

The God Who Sees Me.

~

I was in church a couple weeks ago when I heard the pastor talk about how our mission, as disciples, is to restore dignity to God’s beloved. Many of us in the room who had grown up evangelical are programmed towards understanding evangelism as informing others that God loves them, that he forgives them, and if only they’d turn to him and repent, they would be whole. But the pastor put a full stop on this. He asked us to see them, to tell them we love them, that we value them. He argued that our task included canceling condemnation and stripping away shame and telling the God-honest truth: you matter; you are beautiful; because you are an image-bearer of God.

It’s a message I might’ve heard years before and it would’ve ricocheted right off me, because I would’ve known that the pastor wasn’t actually talking about me. He couldn’t see me. No one could see me, not the real me, not really. And if I learned anything growing up evangelical, it was that my particular kind of different was the worst kind. Loving me without condemning me would be considered “getting carried away” with grace, or “twisting” the scriptures to better fit our feelings. Should I stand naked in the light of truth, they would surely avert their eyes. I knew this was true.

I took this weight with me to a Christian college where, for some strange reason, I thought things might be different. I thought the change in life might propel me along my own goal of “change”, but I was wrong. I now lived, 24/7, with God’s young men, with young conservative men, many of whom happened to be homophobic. In the long walk from the stairwell to my dorm at the end of the hallway, I heard kids calling each other faggots, or having serious political conversations about the gay-lover Obama, or snickering in gossip about a fellow student that was a dancer, and another who seemed to the type, but they weren’t sure, they were just happy they weren’t living with them. And in that first week, I knew I couldn’t stay.

By the end of that first week, I had started several applications to schools out-of-state, places that were categorically not Christian, places far enough from all these people, from this whole evangelical world. On the final night of that week, we had a dorm meeting. It was one of those Welcome Week things where all the RA’s do skits and we sing praise and worship before the Resident Director stepped beneath the spotlight to give a small speech and highlight the expectations for living beneath her roof. I sat on the carpeted floor near the back, knees tucked beneath my chin, occasionally glancing at my phone to check the time. I listened, barely, as she listed off rules about visiting hours and taking care of the bathrooms and how drinking, drugs, and tobacco were expressly forbidden, and before she wrapped up, she made a point to see me. The words thundered out and they might’ve bounced off most, but not me. They reached my deepest corners. I still hear them today.

“Lastly, I want to talk about something else,” she said, shifting her weight to an exhausted posture, “not sure if you all know this, so I’ll fill you in. Gay does not actually mean stupid. It does not mean bad or ugly or anything negative. And I won’t be hearing anymore of what I’ve been hearing. Hope that’s clear. That’s a rule.”

It was small. It definitely didn’t fix all the hard and complicated things that came with going to a Baptist Christian college, but it was the portion of hope I needed to stay in this faith. To keep walking on. To believe that there might be more like her out there, others who would really see me, who would affirm me, who would tell me that I am just as worthy, matter just as much, and am just as beloved by God. And maybe-maybe!, one day, I would walk straight into the light of day, unafraid.

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