“Sweet Jesus, free me.”
Five years ago, these words, birthed from Spirit, emerged from the depths of my being and were spoken into what seemed to be a dark empty void of space. But like the creation narrative, when Spirit combines with Word, new things happen. Over time, this open-handed, full-of-trust prayer has been answered in ways I could never have imagined.
Within weeks of speaking those words, the door opened for me to begin counseling. The long waiting list of a well-respected counselor was suddenly cleared so I can begin the deep dive into the depths of me. Things I’d thought were normal in my childhood were actually abuse or neglect and resulted in unhealthy mechanisms for relating with others. It has taken considerable and continued effort to specifically address deep shame and unconscious coping strategies to trauma that have carried me through life.
The freedom I’ve longed for is slowly being realized. But freedom comes at a cost. God has led me away from the community of faith I loved, organized bible study groups that gave me life, and lay ministry leadership positions that provided purpose, into what feels like wilderness. In doing so, I left all that I once held dear and believed necessary and true to be a follower of Jesus. I’ve also had to deeply reflect on identity and what it means to belong.
For years, I’ve been a leader. Whether it was in my work environment, home, or various volunteer capacities, I’ve had many opportunities to influence change within systems. Sometimes my influence was positive, other times negative. Most times my leadership happened within the frenzied state of busy. I was a busy mom and a busy lay ministry leader. I had bought into the evangelical discipleship model which focused more on doing then becoming. But when I walked away from my non-denominational, evangelical church, I also walked away from all the busy. And when one walks away from busy, there is not much else to do but think…a lot.
Fortunately, I was in seminary and had ample opportunity to think in constructive and transformational ways. In spring of 2019, as I neared graduation for my Master of Divinity, one question surfaced on multiple occasions: “Who are you?” Like the annoying drip of a faucet left barely on, “Who are you?” popped up in seminary assignments, counseling and spiritual direction session, and in my quiet times of reflection. Sure, I could dig up some scripture verses to justify who God said I was and call it good. But I knew God was inviting me into something more.
So, I prayed, pondered, and payed attention to the movement of God in and around me, looking for the answer. My extended time in the wilderness has provided some insight as I examine who I am and how I have come to be. An area of particular interest is the development of my ego. Examining psychological studies regarding the developmental stages of humans, David G. Benner focuses on two dominant seasons: childhood to mid-life and mid-life to death. In the first, we have an external focus, learning the ways of the world and navigating daily life. It is during this time the ego is developed and a separation of self happens. Conversely, in the second stage, humans turn inward, examining ways of “relativizing and transcending” the ego. Here, movement is made back toward discovering our true self. The self is the Imago Dei, the image of God, within each person. It is the essence of who we were created to be.
During human development, the understanding of self is shaped according to attachments with other individuals. This happens primarily between infants and mothers but can also be impacted by other relationships. Through the avenue of trust, children “construct a working model of the way they expect people to treat them, based on their experience of attachments.” This understanding then shapes how an individual interacts with the world in years to come.
In the Undefended Leader: Leading out of Who You Are, Simon P. Walker unpacks four main leadership ego types: shaping, defining, adapting, and defending. As I read through the types, it was clear I fit squarely in the adapting type. I grew up in a home with emotionally and often physically absent parents. I was a latch-key kid raised by working, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” parents. At an early age, I learned expressing emotions was not welcomed. Difficult issues were buried, and conflict avoided. I developed little trust in myself and worked tirelessly to maintain relationship with my parents and others. I did this primarily through helping others, performing exceptionally well in sports and academics, and bottling up my emotions. As I aged, all that bottling of emotions led to deep resentment, uncontrollable anger, and exhaustion. In many ways, during my years in leadership, I was living a life of “daily penance, an observance of a duty of gratitude, burdened by perpetual guilt for what was done for me (by Jesus).” I exchanged one form of bondage for another, as I transferred my efforts of maintaining relationship with others, to diligently working to maintain my relationship with Jesus.
Thankfully, God knew I was in bondage to the ego formed by my past traumas and my present understanding of atonement. God knew I needed time in the wilderness to be stripped of spiritual practices that on the surface are good for many, but for me had become weighted chains. God knew I needed intentional time away from the busy of helping others, from working to maintain relationships, and from all the shame driven “shoulds” and “ought tos” of life. God knew that while I longed for the freedom Christ came to give, it wouldn’t be experienced unless I got really still, silent, and alone, for in the busy cacophony of life, I could not hear the Spirit sweetly whisper, “My beloved, you are free.”
It is in that space I remain.
Here, I’m learning before I can lead, I must learn to follow. Before I can invite others into freedom, I must be free myself. Before I can realize who I was made to be, I must embrace who I’ve become. I’m learning as I become comfortable in the uncomfortable, and rest in the mystery that is God, I can then help others do the same. And lastly, if I want to “enable people to take responsibility” in their lives, I must first take responsibility in mine. This is the goal of true leadership.
In the wilderness, God is inviting me to abide in Jesus by living with deep internal awareness. Doing so facilitates my becoming fully human as Christ was fully human and allows me to lovingly and compassionately walk with others as they, too, follow the Way toward freedom.
 David G. Benner, PhD. Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human. (Grand Rapides, MI: Brazos Press, 2011) 55.
 Simon P. Walker. The Undefended Leader: Leading Out of Who You Are. (Carlisle, UK: Piquant Editions, Ltd., 2010) 58.
 Ibid., 80-81.
 Ibid., 84.
 Ibid., 150-154.
 Benner, 9.