It is March, 2014. I am less than two months away from graduating college, home in Virginia on my spring break. I am in the habit of writing out my prayers, currently in a green velvet-covered lined journal. On Sunday, there are two big things on my mind: first, the two auditions for ballet companies that I have coming up that week, and second, a guy at my home church that I am slowly becoming good friends with when I am home on various breaks.
So, in a somewhat embarrassed fashion, I ask God for two specific things: that I would find favor in the eyes of both company directors but especially the second one, and that I would be able to have a good solid conversation with this guy.
You see, I am pretty reserved and quiet, even more so back then than I will be later. I haven't yet quite figured out how to be friends with males. The idea of walking over to a guy and starting a conversation is intimidating, and I am worried that it would come across the wrong way. So usually we only talk when he, by far more extroverted than I am, comes over. This Sunday morning, he didn't, so we didn't talk.
I am also a little insecure, and that feeds into my reserve; I don't tend to put myself out there unless I'm confident that doing so will go well. In dance, I'm a good performer but not great at auditions, and I am a better contemporary dancer than I am a ballet dancer, and there are some moments when I'm not entirely sure why I'd decided that it was a good idea to audition for ballet companies. Except this - I love being challenged, and I love fighting hard to overcome a challenge. Ballet is the foundation of every other form of dance, and it is also the hardest form of dance for me to feel really comfortable in. It was better, I reasoned, to start with what is harder for me and then later transition to something that comes more naturally if I still want to - better than the other way around. I am not sure if I am good enough to get into a ballet company, but I want to try, and I am willing to work very hard to improve if a company will take a chance on me.
So I tell God these two secret desires of mine that I don't tell anyone else. I also tell Him that I'm aware that there are more important things for both Him and me to worry about. But I don't want to stress about these things any more than I already have, so I give them to Him and let them go.
Tuesday and Wednesday are my auditions. On Thursday, March 27, I get an email offering me a trainee contract with the second company I auditioned for, and frankly I am blown away. That evening I go to college Bible study with my home church, and that guy comes over to talk, and he's the first person outside my family that I tell about the trainee offer.
Fast forward two and a half years. I am still dancing with that ballet company, now as an apprentice. And that guy's name is Jesse, and I'm married to him.
It is October, 2016. I am wrestling with the concept of grace. I have learned, improved, grown so much over the last two years of dancing. But they have been two very hard years, physically, mentally, and emotionally. I was at the studio an average of 40 hours spread over six days a week, and working an additional 20-25 hours at one or two part-time jobs. At the beginning, I had no day off. I quickly burnt out from that and started taking Sundays off when I could. But then Sundays became the only day I had to run errands, clean, and catch up on tasks. My concept of rest became very skewed. There was one December day during our crazy Nutcracker season where I was at my coffee shop job on my day off from dance. A co-worker commented that I was working an eight-hour shift, which was longer than my schedule usually allowed. I said, yes I am, it's my day off.
In what crooked perspective is only working eight hours equal to a day off?
I had a lot of catching up to do when I started at my company. I had had decent training in ballet when I was growing up and at college, but I had never been taught the mechanics of movement and which muscles I should be using. I just more or less powered my way through everything, with varying degrees of success and consistency. That led to building up some of the wrong muscles and having to relearn how to use the right ones. I am already muscular, with a long torso and short legs, a body type generally more suited to modern dance than ballet. There was a lot of work to be done, and though I was determined to do it, it was hard to walk in to ballet class every day and feel like I had to strive at all times for technical perfection, when my heart longed to just get lost in the contemporary movement which comes easily to me, where your technique doesn't matter as much as pouring your soul into it does. At times, I was already not quite sure how I had managed to land a place in this company. I felt like I was always trying to prove that I was, in fact, worthy of it.
I am still in the process of recovering from that work-into-the-ground mindset. Even though my schedule is lighter and a little easier now, I find myself still viewing Sundays as my day to complete tasks, which somehow became synonymous with rest in my mind. I have grown so much as a dancer, and can take a ballet class or be in rehearsal without feeling like I don't really belong there. And yet sometimes I still struggle to remember that to be authentic, dance should be less about being perfect and more about being present.
I have realized that I often do not think of rest as worthwhile. I measure my life and my worth in terms of tangible output - what I accomplish, how much I improve, what I do for other people, whether I am working hard and putting in 110% effort. It is not useful, my brain argues, to spend a whole day every week hanging out with my husband, going to church, reading, puttering around the house when I could be getting so many tasks checked off my list. It is a waste of precious time to sleep when I'm tired - that's what caffeine is for. It is not productive to spend a couple of hours making a craft, or working on a puzzle with a friend, or playing a game with Jesse, or getting lost in a book, or processing all my thoughts out in a prayer journal, or just sitting still in quietness, or doing anything else restful that I genuinely enjoy, when I am almost constantly haunted by guilt that I'm not out saving the world, or at least tackling some self-improvement project like going to the gym.
These threads of my thoughts weave themselves into a tapestry that says this: It Is All Up To You. If you don't work hard, you are worth nothing. You will get nowhere. You are not valuable. You do not deserve to rest. You do not merit favor. You do not deserve to be loved.
It is no wonder that I have spent the greater part of the last two years under an enormous amount of stress and self-induced pressure. Yes, I worked very hard. I learned dance mechanics and applied corrections. I wrote down notes and worked on the details I was lacking. If something didn't go well the first time, I tried again. I learned extra roles and put myself and my dancing out there in ways that scared me. I tried to be professional, to show up every day and to do my job well. I started work at 6:45 am and danced until 10 pm some days. I worked with a personal trainer and nutritionist for a little while and went to the gym in my limited free time to tone up and get in better shape. I was determined and motivated to do well.
But here is a surprise: that is not why I am where I am now.
Thursday, March 27, 2014. Bible study has finished. It's somewhere around 10:30 pm and I'm standing by the front door of the house where it was held, talking with a few friends. By my own standards, I'm already out pretty late. After all, I'm a planner, and I have planned to get a decent amount of sleep. But the college group has a new trend of going out to IHOP after Bible study to hang out and eat late-night flapjacks and talk. Jesse convinces me to come with them. He has to work pretty hard to persuade me. But I am intrigued by the fact that he wants me to come, and after all, I do want to get to know him better. So, I give in. He rides with me while we drive over, and we sit across from each other at a big table with seven or eight other friends. He asks if I want to order anything. I'm super indecisive when it comes to food choices, and I spend much longer than I should perusing the menu and trying to mentally compare health factor, expense, and perceived satisfaction among all the options. Finally he asks in his incredulous way if I'm still deciding? I mutter something about still not knowing what I want, and he points to the short stack of pancakes - the obvious choice - and suggests we just get this. With blueberries?
Jesse is extroverted, social, thriving on interactions with people. The first thing I noticed when I met him in 2012 was how deep and serious he is about his faith. He was a leader figure in the group, one of the guys who was always present and organized events and checked in with people to see how they were doing if they hadn't been to group in a while. He asked deep, probing questions - what's your worst fear for the next five years? What's the worst thing you've ever done? How does dance change your perspective on life? He challenged people to stop sitting around and start doing something big with their lives. He said he wanted to make people into heroes. He is an engineer, smart and analytical and technically minded. He's spent a year studying in Russia and can speak the language. He has intense eyes and a warm smile. He can imitate almost any voice or accent. He loves music and theater and makes sketches that simply yet poignantly depict stories. He likes surprising friends at their workplaces or by showing up when they're not expecting him. He cares deeply about people. He loves languages and cultures and he wants to go into overseas missions.
He is big-hearted and handsome and totally intimidating to my 2014 self.
Our blueberry pancakes arrive. He tries to cut the stack in half, but the two parts turn out pretty uneven, so he cuts another little chunk off the larger part. This is Russia, he says, indicating one of the big portions, and this is Ukraine, the other one, and this is Crimea, indicating the little portion. I tell him I'll just take Ukraine. After all, I probably wouldn't be eating anything if he hadn't decided what we were getting.
Later on, I start getting cold. He notices and asks if I want his coat. I don't, really, but he insists. He comes over and puts it around my shoulders. We spend the rest of the evening in some topic of conversation or another. He pays for the pancakes. I conclude he really did want me to come.
There's a funny feeling that settles in my gut while we sit there. I realize that I am seeing God's love through Jesse. I feel humbled - beautifully, tenderly humbled. I cannot take pride in the fact that Jesse seems to be noticing me and drawing me out to come hang out with the group, and by extension, with him. I am floored that a guy like him, whom I have so much respect for, would care that much about spending time with me. I've been so shy and reserved, he really barely knows me, and I haven't done much of anything to deserve his attention. But even then he decides to take a chance on me, and shows kindness to me.
Is this not a shadow of the gospel? Isn't it true that I have done nothing to merit God's favor or grace - that, on the contrary, I've turned my back and hidden my heart from Him so many times, and yet He still pursues me and shows me kindness? Didn't He love me first, before I loved Him, and at the risk that I never would? Is He not drenching me in a relentless downpour of grace I do not deserve, favor I do not merit?
Unmerited favor is a concept that does not really exist in dance. If you are not a prodigy, and most of us aren't, you work very hard to grow as a technician and an artist, to train your body and your muscles, to be professional, to make sacrifices for the sake of your career, to prove yourself. You earn favor - it does not come automatically or easily. No company hires you without first seeing you dance and judging whether or not you fit their aesthetic style and level of technical proficiency. Once you are hired, you are expected to continue working at and above that level, and to keep yourself in good shape and stamina. It is ingrained in you that there is always something you can improve on. Staying stagnant, in your comfort zone, will not get you far.
All of this is a beautiful challenge, and the idea that you will never quite master your craft but can always delve deeper into it is one of the things that make it so attractive and fulfilling to many dancers. But it can also lead to deep insecurity and discouragement. There are some days when you feel that you will never be good enough. It is easy to think that every one is judging you and picking out all your flaws. In fact, dancers are much more used to hearing criticism, ways to improve, about their weaknesses, than they are about their strengths and what they do well.
This has been my mindset in the dance world since graduating high school, fueled by the lingering sense that I don't quite belong, that everyone else thinks I don't quite belong, and that my job is to prove them wrong. And it has translated into other areas of my life. It has translated into the way I relate to people, the way I order my priorities (tasks > rest), and the way I view God.
I struggle with grace because I want to be worthy of everything I have. If someone seems to have a higher opinion of me then I think I deserve, I feel wrong. I crave affirmation, and yet I struggle to accept it. Even if I've earned a compliment, a little voice in my head whispers that I could've done even more. I want to be worthy of grace, even retroactively - I want to prove to you now that I was indeed worth loving or investing in.
There was one evening this September when I was down, feeling useless and discouraged about all that I am not, and my sweet husband held me and told me that God is so pleased with me - which is the truth of the gospel, that because of Christ's sacrifice for me, I can come into God's presence not only with no fear, but with approval. And I realized that I have not absorbed the idea that God is pleased with me. Instead, my first thought was, but what if He isn't? I've never thought I was guilty of works-based theology, but I realized that I don't believe God is pleased with me unless I work really hard and show Him why He ought to be. I realized that grace offends my pride. I only want to be loved when I've done something to deserve it.
I don't want to be humbled by a blueberry pancakes kind of love - the kind that finds me when I'm in my little corner, trying to put myself together until I feel ready to be in the spotlight and prove to a waiting audience that I can, in fact, dance - the kind of love that calls me worthy before I've even done anything.
You don't know me, I want to say. You don't know if I'm worth loving or not.
But in fact, that's the kind of love that is free to know me the deepest. Because, deep down, I am flawed. I am not perfect. I'm pretty messy. I'm not actually all that put together. I do things that are wrong, that are hurtful, that are useless and not valuable. I'm not always great at what I do for a living. I have faults and shortcomings and weaknesses.
And yet, I am still loved. I am still forgiven. I am still shown grace.
I once asked Jesse why he loved me. He did not cite my virtues, which may be inconsistent, or my beauty, which will fade, or my personality, which frankly is not always attractive. He said, "Because I chose you."
Romans 5:6-8 says this: "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person one would die - but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Notice what that first phrase says. The right time for Christ to die was while we were weak, still sinners. The right time was not when we were strong, valuable in of ourselves, or deserving. That is initiating love. That is unmerited favor. That is the grace of God.
I did not earn God's love. I did not earn Jesse's love. I did not even earn my position as an apprentice with my ballet company.
I remember, before I was promoted, watching someone of a higher rank dance and thinking, if I'm not where they are, I must not be working hard enough. Immediately, the truth hit me: no, it actually has little to do with how hard I work, although hard work has value. In reality, if I'm not where that other person is, it's because God doesn't want me there yet.
Years ago, a friend told me that God equips you for exactly what He wants you to do, when He wants you to do it. So whether you feel over-prepared or under-prepared for what you have been given to do, overqualified or under-qualified, born ready or not ready at all, overconfident or undeserving - God has you right where He means you to be. He does not make mistakes. His timing is good, and everywhere you are, He has something to teach you, ways to grow you. Everything He leads you through is His grace for you. You do not earn that grace through what you do. You do not forfeit that grace by what you fail to do. It is His initiating gift, a good and perfect gift from above.
After I found out that I was going to be promoted, I looked around at some of my fellow dancers on a day where my own dancing was not really at its peak, and thought to myself that there are so many people out there who are probably more qualified for my position than I am. But it is not a matter of being qualified; it is rather about where God wants me to be, for a sovereign and far-reaching purpose that I may never understand.
In Walking on Water, Madeleine L'Engle writes, "In a very real sense not one of us is qualified, but it seems that God continually chooses the most unqualified to do his work, to bear his glory. If we are qualified, we tend to think that we have done the job ourselves. If we are forced to accept our evident lack of qualification, then there's no danger that we will confuse God's work with our own, or God's glory with our own."
This story did not begin with my determination, my hard work, my dazzling artistry, my charm, my wit, my great virtue, my perfection, my merit, my good deeds. It began with God's answer to two simple prayers. It was He who gave me my husband and my opportunity to dance. And long before that, all of my story began with His grace that reached out first, His love that pursues me even when I am not worth pursuing, and His favor that covers me even though I do not deserve it.
One of my favorite songs by Lauren Daigle is called "Loyal". The lyrics go like this:
"I could never earn Your heart / I could never reach that far
But You have pulled me close / You'll never let me go / I'm safe forever in Your arms
You look into my eyes / see the things I hide / and say that You will never leave
Your promises I cannot break / and I know You will never change
Your love is loyal / More faithful than the rising sun / This grace for me, I can't outrun."
April 24, 2015. Jesse sends me this text.
"Beloved daughter of God, remember today that no matter what you can't do for Him, what mistakes you make, or what of His you seem to waste, your Father delights to watch you dance, in the studio, on stage, and in the day to day things that make up your life."
And this is grace. May I never fail to recognize that everything I have, I owe to Him.