That Skill

How Words Invite Others Into Freedom


“A thorn has entered your foot,” begins a haunting poem by the fourteenth century mystic Catherine of Siena. The poem continues:


That is why you

                  weep at times at



There are some in this world

                  who can pull it



The skill that takes they have

                learned from


Entitled “That Skill” by translator Daniel Ladinsky, Catherine’s poem captures a bit of the power of words to shape and reshape our experience of reality. When I first read this poem, and every time I’ve returned to it since, I’ve felt jolted into awareness of an ache buried beneath layers of numbness and resignation, the ache of a wound that longs to be attended to.

We’ve been wounded, the Christian faith professes; all of us. But it’s a wounding we’ve been denying and running from ever since, covering our pain and shame with masks of confidence and control.

And that is one central reason words matter for followers of Christ. It takes great skill—great compassion, insight, and persistence—to invite others to know and be known as they really are. And it takes great courage to invite others to help us see ourselves for who we are. To be seen, known, and loved, not in our disguises, but in our vulnerability. As the person who weeps at night. For it’s only as that person—the person we really are—that we can experience the transforming grace of God speaking life and light into our darkness.

Over the years, there have been pivotal moments in my life when a few well-spoken words from someone who truly saw me have cut through the fog with unexpected clarity, guiding me into a new trajectory for my life. Friends or teachers who helped me see layers to my story that I could not yet see, and who persistently believed in a purpose for me bigger than the narrow confines of the story I believed about myself.

And over the years, God has also worked through the keen insights and probing words of a small collection of books, ones that have broken into my life and story in a unique way. While other books are read and quickly forgotten, these I return to again and again when I’m finding myself feeling lost or adrift. Each time, they reawaken something in me, grounding me once more in who I am and who I’m meant to be.

One such book, a more recent companion of mine, has been Chuck DeGroat’s Leaving Egypt, which explores the Exodus as a paradigm for our experience of salvation. DeGroat suggests we are all slaves, “trapped in patterns of thinking and feeling that stifle our freedom.” And for each of us, “Egypt,” the home that may have once been a place of growth and flourishing for us, eventually becomes a prison, a “constrictive place where growth is no longer possible.” Yet when God invites

us into the wilderness, into a journey of transformation toward the Promised Land, we balk. Egypt is the only way of life we’ve known; maybe we even doubt anything better is possible. For each of us, then, salvation is a journey towards a new identity, one that frees us to surrender the idols of Egypt—even “Christianized” versions of them—for true joy and purpose.

Leaving Egypt has become a pivotal book for me because it’s given me, for the first time, a framework for understanding and describing the ways in which I sometimes default into interpreting a Christian worldview in self-destructive ways, distorting the gospel until it’s no longer good news but a way to bludgeon myself with fear and shame. It offered a paradigm for how easily even a seemingly Christian worldview can turn into a form of bondage when it’s used to justify inertia. In that way, Christianity beliefs can become a fear-driven tool used for a sense of control and safety, narrowly delineating the boundaries of who we are and what’s possible for us. And it can eliminate greater possibilities that, though tantalizing, seem too good to be true. God has given us the ability to, as His image-bearers, create and articulate meaning and beauty, but in our fear we use language to imprison instead of free.

In this way, a constricted vision of the gospel can become an “Egypt” as paralyzing as the Egypt the Israelites fled. Though we’re sometimes vaguely aware of the despair that permeates our lives, the fear of what might happen if we follow God into the wilderness keeps us immobile.

But through the ache we cannot escape, through tears from the thorns that have pierced us deeply, we are invited into a journey of surrender. Our God of love gently, patiently, and persistently invites us to let go of our frantic attempts at control in exchange for a walk into greater and greater depths of truth. For in both its pain and its beauty, the truth is the path to freedom, healing, and transformation.

And when we have felt the Creator’s healing touch, the Word that gently and creatively transforms pain into beauty, through Christ in us, we can become those who invite others to journey with us into the truth and into freedom.


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