A Beautiful Reflection: Part 2

A Beautiful Reflection: Part 2

Posted on April 04, 2019

BY MICHELLE WILLIAMS, GRACE ATTENDER

A high school teen helps her mom realize the spiritual truth of a loving God who desires to comfort pain, ease burdens of shame, and trade in fears for faith. Read Part 1 here.

Casey picked up her pace through the hallway toward Mrs. Cunningham’s freshman biology class. She whispered to herself that it was time to focus on school, but she was buzzing inside from her conversation with Layla. An excitement sparked within her about the revelation of a loving God who is present everywhere, and she felt like she’d just removed a pair of lenses that had prevented her from seeing Him her whole life.

She didn’t want those lenses anymore. They weren’t hers to begin with—she acquired these tired, old hand-me-downs at a very young age from her strict, but well-meaning mother, Carol. Casey’s mind shifted to the nervous awareness that approaching her mom was about more than just permission to wear makeup. She longed to gain an unprecedented level of autonomy. And at the core of her being, Casey now recognized that her devoutly religious mother had handed her a set of beliefs that—not intentionally—had most likely hindered her development of a deeply rooted and loving relationship with God. That’s what this was about.

It’s going to be impossible to pay attention in class, she thought as she took her seat. She didn’t want this to turn into a knock-down, drag-out fight with her mom, and she knew she needed to fully hash out her objectives before initiating the conversation. Her heart, or maybe the Holy Spirit, was telling her that her mom may actually need this awakening more than she did herself. And it prodded her more urgently than her motivation to tend to her school work.

Casey had never known her mother to wear makeup a day in her life, and the only piece of jewelry she owned was the simple wedding band Casey’s father had given her 17 years ago. The conservative church where Carol grew up imposed rigid expectations on women—from their appearance and behavior to their practical roles in society. Makeup and jewelry had been strictly forbidden, dubbed as common offenders in the provocation of lust.

Casey had been incredibly relieved three years prior when her mom decided the time had come to explore new possibilities for a church home after their reverend minister had retired. Casey eagerly begged her to try a service at Layla’s growing church, and finally convinced her based on its potent social justice outreach ministries. Since that time, Casey had enjoyed a front-row perspective as her mom began deconstructing some of the more toxic gender-based ideologies of her past.

Unfortunately, the rejection of makeup and jewelry hadn’t made it to the deconstruction den by the time Casey’s father attempted to give Carol a stunning diamond necklace as a birthday gift. Being a particularly empathetic teenager, Casey had sensed the bruising of her dad’s spirit when her mom demanded the necklace be returned. “I’m not going to be the kind of woman who distracts other people from the reason they’re at church.” She remembered the sting in her mom’s words and her dad’s downtrodden demeanor as he left the house. Casey had secretly cried herself to sleep that night; proud of her father for embracing his own spiritual transformation and making such a heartfelt offering, but grieved about the clattering blow his enthusiasm had sustained.

“And remember, your project status reports are due Tuesday. Enjoy your weekend!” Mrs. Cunningham’s voice snapped Casey back to reality after having spent nearly the entire class lost in thought. She carefully avoided eye contact with her teacher on her way out the door.

With the weekend upon her, Casey could finally let her mind completely converge on the objective ahead. She picked a seat alone on the bus, and decided to spend the next two and a half hours listing out her talking points before her mom would return home from work for the day.

It really all stems from fear. Is she afraid that God won’t accept her? To Casey, it certainly always seemed that her mom based most decisions on a set of rules that supposedly determined her worth to God. She operates as if she fears that one misstep will close the doors of Heaven forever. Casey never really bought into that idea of God—an ominous dictator watching her every move, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to put a strike in the sin column. In her heart, she knew better than that, yet nonetheless seemed to have absorbed some of her mom’s trepidation. Anytime Casey earnestly questioned the basis of her mom’s rules, she heard a lot of, “because I said so,” or, “this is what our family has always believed, Casey.” Her frustration with the unyielding ambiguity had reached the boiling point now.

For the longest time in her youth, Casey was not allowed to play in groups that included boys—her mom explained that it had been the custom during her own childhood. Only in the most recent few years had Carol felt a conviction that separating young boys and girls possibly prevented them from developing healthy social interaction with one another going into adulthood. “It’s unfortunate that the intended solution likely caused some of the problems they were trying to avoid. I see that now.

Yet, even with such a change in perspective, Casey still encountered her mom’s lingering hesitation regarding her interactions with boys. Just the prior month, they’d engaged in a heated discussion about Casey’s use of social media when a boy from her algebra class commented on Instagram about her “super cute” outfit. “You just don’t need this kind of attention right now. It can only lead to trouble and shame. Maybe I shouldn’t have let you use Instagram. I just knew from the get-go it would lead you astray and have you focusing on the wrong things.” Casey felt a pulsing heat rush to her face as she recalled her mom’s anxious threat to snatch back that tiny, but precious, amount of independence.

Casey sighed heavily. She wants me to be ten years old forever. But I’m not that little girl anymore. Even though she’d been flattered—and maybe a little excited—by Justin’s compliment the month before, her dreams were wrapped up in other things than boys, like her athletic aspiration to make junior varsity cross country team captain her sophomore year. Casey came alive running ever since she took first place in her middle school charity 5k, and she focused the bulk of her free time to training and conditioning. She hoped her passion for running would eventually lead to an opportunity for a college scholarship, as well as a chance to take the reins on her own life.

Much of the rest of Casey’s spare time involved social outreach projects through school and church. But Casey despaired that even her service efforts had been thwarted by her mom’s apprehensive control. “There are plenty of people right here in our community to serve. You don’t need to travel hundreds of miles away just to find people who need help. What about a local women’s build with Habitat for Humanity?” Her adventurous excitement about the prospect of a short-term mission trip with Layla the previous summer had been quickly extinguished by her mom’s angst surrounding the idea of Casey participating in an overnight trip with a co-ed group from the student ministry. But Casey ached for a retreat where she could not only serve, but also take some uninhibited time to explore her faith and a vision for her future. Sometimes I feel like she totally sabotages my spiritual energy. She hated that her relationship with her mom had evolved into contempt, and knew it desperately needed to change.

Just then, Casey heard the slow, mechanical roll of the garage door sliding up the track. She cringed and her pulse sped up, her heart beating with such a force that she wondered if her mom could already hear it. She hadn’t yet landed on a way to gently break the ice in this conversation she hoped would be a grand turning point in her life. She wanted to plead with God for just two more minutes of solitude, but she submitted to the reality of the moment. The pool of tension she found herself in was too deep to wade any further in pure contemplation. “You must not have seen fit to put your cereal bowl in the dishwasher this morning,” Carol’s greeting to her daughter, tinged with annoyance, induced a familiar defensiveness to bubble up within Casey.

“Mom, we need to talk.” Casey paused, grasping to seize the courage to fight an impending paralyzation to speak. Carol’s suddenly uneasy expression froze like a deer caught in headlights. Oh no, she surely thinks I’m pregnant now! Casey kicked herself for the unfortunate selection of words.

“Oh, it’s really nothing major. I just wanted to ask if it’s okay for me to start wearing lip gloss?” Before the request even left her mouth, Casey couldn’t stop herself from downplaying the intended role of the discussion. Be brave, Casey!

“Honey, are you insecure about your appearance? It’s this Instagram again, isn’t it? All these kids trying to build unrealistic personas. You don’t need that demeaning influence, and I certainly won’t have you looking like a streetwalker.”

Boom. There it was—the unfiltered, opinionated posture that so often halted Casey’s urges to engage in any sort of dialogue with her mom.

“Jeez, how do you really feel, mom?” Casey snapped back, her irritation coloring the tone of her voice. “Wait, this is not… Mom, I’m not trying to start a fight. Can we both just push the reset button? I really want to have a productive conversation with you. Can I say something?”

“I’m all ears,” with her hands perched on her hips, Carol huffed in restraint. Casey could sense that her mom wanted to say more, so she quickly continued.

“So I know your general feelings about makeup, but I want you to consider a new way of looking at it. Listen, a lot of people think makeup is this taboo, and that the only reason someone would want to use it stems from a lack of confidence. It’s kinda hard-baked into our society, actually. In fact, I think that idea is so permeated through our culture that many girls don’t even realize it when they subliminally buy into it. Have you ever considered that makeup might simply be an expression of creativity, mom?” Casey hoped she’d spoken articulately enough to pique her mom’s interest.

“But there are so many other ways to be creative. I just think makeup is not really necessary, Casey.”

Casey jumped back in. “Right, there are about a million ways to express creativity, and do you ever wonder why we’re so intrigued by so many different expressions? It’s because God is creative, and we’re made in His image. Honestly, I don’t think makeup is much different from, say, creatively decorating a Christmas tree.” Thanks, Layla. Casey made a mental note to give her good friend a celebratory high-five at school on Monday.

“Well, that’s certainly an interesting theory,” Carol laughed condescendingly.

“Seriously, though, mom. Think about it. Cherry trees just fine with their green leaves, but God feels compelled to add a pretty burst of pink blooms in the spring—or to dot a hillside with lavender flowers in the summer. Why is it such a bad thing for a girl to like the idea of adding a splash of color to her own face every once in a while? And what if that girl felt deeply connected to God through her creativity with makeup every time she pulled out her lip gloss? What if, every time she looked in the mirror, she saw God in the reflection instead of focusing so much on other people’s critiques of her? I think that simple change of mindset could actually make the world a better place.” Casey resolved not to give up on taking her conversation all the way.

Carol’s tone hardened. “Praying is the way to connect with God. Scripture will show you His wisdom. Worship will put you in tune with Him. But makeup? I don’t think so.”

“Well, mom, I’m telling you right now that I’m choosing to find God in everyday life, not just on Sundays and not just when I open my Bible. If you want to limit God to some kind of scorekeeper you check in with every week, that’s fine with me. But I’m done imagining that He’s breathing down my neck like you always do.” Casey’s frustration boiled over into a mess, like a sputtering pot of hot spaghetti sauce. The child in her wanted to turn and run back into the safety and seclusion of her bedroom, but the woman she was becoming felt prompted to work harder at pulling her mom out of the typical rhetoric. She drew a deep breath and softened her voice. “Mom, why do you cling so hard to religious perfection? Is that really what you think God wants from you? He just wants your love, both for Himself and for others. From what I can tell, you seem to fear Him more than you love Him.”

Carol let out another huff, her expression indicating that her daughter’s directness had surprised her. The deafening pause that followed made Casey feel especially unnerved.

“Casey, God wants us all to be good people, and in my experience, makeup is just one of those things that elicits immoral thoughts and behaviors.”

Just then, a light bulb clicked on in Casey’s mind. “But, mom, I thought you’ve never worn makeup. How has that been your experience if you’ve never even tried it?”

Carol hesitated, and Casey sensed that she had struck some sort of nerve. “I did try it, just once. And that day… Oh, I wish I could just go back and smack myself. I acted so foolishly that day, but I was only fifteen, just a little older than you are now.” Carol paused, shaking her head. “A friend and I snuck her mother’s lipstick out of her purse and she dared me to put some on…”

Excitedly surprised and fiercely curious, Casey interrupted her mom mid-sentence. “Oh, wow, mom. Did you like it? What color was it?”

Carol thought for a second. “At first, yes, I did actually like it. That bright red, it felt—well it felt a little powerful. It was fun for a moment.”

“Why just a moment? It’s because you’d been conditioned by other people your whole life to think you were doing something wrong, isn’t it?” Casey’s hope surged, and she felt confident that they were on the verge of making a breakthrough together. “Wow, red lipstick. Who would’ve thought? That’s awesome, mom, I love it!”

No, Casey!” Carol angrily snapped.  “It was anything but awesome. Nothing but evil came out of that tube of lipstick that day.”

Nearly knocked off her feet by her mom’s sharp response, Casey’s defenses activated again. “What in the world, mom? Is that what you actually believe, or is it just too hard to break away from someone else’s stupid idea because you bought into it your whole life? Explain to me exactly how lipstick is evil.” Casey could not contain her messy frustration any longer.

Carol straightened her shoulders and shoved a finger squarely in Casey’s face. “Now you listen to me, young lady. I acted like a vixen that day, and as such, I received the punishment I deserved for my own sinfulness.” Stepping back, Carol’s eyes filled with tears. “And I refuse,” her voice quivered, ”I will not let you learn that lesson the hard way like I did, Casey.” Carol squeezed her eyes shut and let her tears stream heavy to the tiled kitchen floor beneath her feet. She covered her face with her hands and sobbed.

“Mom? Mom, why are you crying?” Casey instinctively rushed in to grasp her mother, who suddenly appeared as though she might lose all power to stand on her own. Like a battering ram busting through a concrete wall, the realization struck Casey in an instant. “Mom, did something bad happen to you that day? Did somebody hurt you?” She could feel her own hot tears wetting her face. Her frustration evaporated, replaced by pure empathy.

“Casey, I can’t. I just…” With one last whimper, Carol wiped the tears from her face, composed herself and took Casey by the shoulders. “Honey, I’m your mother and you just have to trust me. I love you. I only intend to protect you,” she pulled Casey in for a hug, and hushed her voice to a quiet whisper. “And please—promise me you won’t mention this conversation to your father?”

“Oh, mom. It all makes so much sense now. Whatever happened to you that day, it wasn’t your fault,” Casey pushed back to an arm’s length, her thoughts pouring out in a stream of conscious clarity. “I understand if you don’t feel like you can talk to me about it right now, but you can’t keep this all bottled up inside. You have to trust me on that. To be honest, I didn’t even really care whether you were going to let me wear lip gloss, I just wanted…” she paused to collect herself, “I think the Holy Spirit wanted me to help set you free from this darkness. Mom, it’s had you in a choke hold long enough. That day, it wasn’t a punishment from God—God’s heart is broken for your pain. He wants to take that shame away and ease your pain, but for years you’ve been too focused on covering over it to turn and embrace His loving truth. Evil deceived you that day into believing you brought something awful on yourself, and hiding your brokenness has only fed that evil and kept it alive this whole time. Now it’s even trying to use its lies to tear our family apart. For us, you have to promise me you’ll talk to someone. You can meet confidentially with one of the counselors at church. They can help you. I am so sorry, mom. I just never imagined.” Casey wept, and the two embraced, crying together for what seemed like an hour.

“I don’t know if I can do it, honey.” Carol’s humble honesty broke the silence between them. “What if this rips a hole in our lives that can’t be fixed?”

“Mom, if only you could see yourself through His eyes. You’re so precious to God. Nothing can take His love away from you. I know this is scary, and it’s going to be a big and bold step for you. But I promise we’re going to get through this together.” Casey looked into her mother’s eyes as if trying to reach the depths of her soul. “And from here on out, this family is going to get reacquainted with God together. We’re going to explore the love of a God who isn’t disappointed in us, who doesn’t keep score or threaten our place at the table. We’re going to learn to love the God who wants to help us trade in our fears for faith.”

Carol took Casey’s hands into her own. “I knew the moment I laid eyes on you that God had sent me an angel.” The words meant more to Casey than she herself could even comprehend. She sensed a new, unshakeable bond forming between them in the moment, and she rested comfortably in a knowing that God was answering her prayers in His unexpected, but perfect way. “And today you have amazed me. I can’t promise that I’m completely freed from the grip of this fear, but I can say that you’ve helped me to find a new strength. Thank you so, so much, my angel.”