Asking for Permission to Speak Freely: An Interview with Anne Jackson
Anne Jackson has traveled around the world telling stories of hope found in the least likely of places. In her latest book, Permission to Speak Freely, and the accompanying website, she hopes to create safe spaces where Christians can experience the presence of God in every aspect of their lives.
What prompted you to post the question on your blog "What is the one thing you feel you can't say in church?"
As a preacher's kid—I grew up in church. From my earliest memories, I felt the pressure to keep certain topics under wraps. You don't talk about other religions, or politics, or anything sexual. If something was wrong, you didn't bring it up, because people would start questioning your faith. When I asked the question in May 2008, it was because I was in the midst of a season of depression. I was new in my city and didn't feel like I could openly talk about my condition. Feeling alone and wondering if other people shared the same fear, as a spur-of-the-moment reaction, I posted the question on my blog.
Why do you feel there was such a global response to this question?
Many of us have grown up with some kind of exposure to the Christian faith, especially in America. And with that comes the same expectation of keeping up with appearances in order to look like we have a great relationship with God and with others. Over time, the weight of carrying things we don't want to speak up about because we're afraid (ultimately, I believe of isolation or judgment) builds up; somehow, we've got to find an outlet. Many times, we act in rebellion. Sometimes we leave our faith behind. I believe since the Internet provides a certain level of anonymity, people felt comfortable finally releasing some of those questions—as well as reading through the answers and discovering they were not alone.
What was the biggest surprise you encountered as you gathered these stories and posted them on the website?
I was most surprised when people brought up issues of global poverty or creation care. The Bible is clear on what our response as Christ followers should be. But, because these issues have been largely swept under the rug in our westernized culture, people were afraid to discuss them—thinking they would be seen as not having the same in-focused vision of the church.
Why does the parable of the Prodigal Son resonate with you?
I've played the game of "the holy one" before. I've portrayed the righteous son—the one who is faithful and obedient. Then when a more "flawed" person crosses my path, I judge them. I may not judge them openly, but within my own heart I'm grateful that "I'm not that screwed up" or "I'm glad it was this person and not me." Thoughts like that cross my mind. The story of the Prodigal Son reminds me that not only does the prodigal need grace—his older, "holy" brother does too—that even on our best days when we don't make big mistakes, God still sees all of us through the lens of the cross. Without the cross, he can't look upon any of us, no matter how good or bad we are.
How can Christians create safe spaces to talk about issues like abuse, addiction, and clinical depression?
I truly believe the way we can create safe spaces for these necessary conversations is to become a safe space ourselves. Most of us have dealt with abuse, addiction, mental health issues, or something similar or we are close to someone who has. By sharing the story of how God has worked and is working in those situations, a door of trust is open; and we give them permission to speak freely about whatever area of brokenness they are walking through. We love them unconditionally, without trying to fix their problems. God is constant in our ups and downs.
What does it mean for us to carry each other?
We all know what it's like to feel burdened by something. We feel a weight on our soul and our spirit. I think of a recent situation where I was confronted with a family crisis that could be one of those issues easily swept under the rug. Instead, I reached out immediately to a close friend for help. I couldn't carry the weight of this crisis on my own. My friend helped by offering words that helped me refocus and make a decision on what needed to be my next step. Without this, I probably would have chosen poorly. Although the weight of the burden I was carrying didn't magically transfer to my friend, it did become lighter. In Galatians, we are told to carry each other's burdens. And in a U2 song, Bono sings, "We get to carry each other." It's not an obligation. It's a privilege.
How has this book informed your own faith walk?
I am becoming more aware of the power of community. The band Jars of Clay is releasing a new album this fall called The Shelter that is all about how we are not alone when we allow our lives to intersect with others—in all of the moments of life. A line from one of the songs says, "In the shelter of each other, we will live," and that defines the sort of biblical community I believe is mentioned in the Bible. Writing this book opened my eyes to look for these opportunities: Opportunities to carry someone and opportunities to allow others to carry me.
Questions for personal reflection, online discussion, or small groups:
- How do you respond to this question, "What is the one thing you feel you can't say in church?"
- How does the parable of the Prodigal Son speak to you? Which character do you identify with the most—the younger son, his older brother, or the father?
- Have you been able to find any safe spaces where you can talk about those issues you feel you can't talk about in church? If so, what are they? If not, what do you feel are the obstacles preventing you from finding such safe spaces?