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Our Subordinate Clauses

Jessica Brown

Photo by Jessica Brown

Photo by Jessica Brown

When I think of metaphors for our identity—the prismatic, shifting, layered, being-becoming self—I sometimes think of landscapes with peaks and valleys, or three-dimensional stained-glass kaleidoscopes, or even the deep expanse of space.

I usually don’t think of sentence structure.

A few weeks ago, I was walking along the edge of Loch Derg. The sky was low and pearly, the waters smooth and clean. I came to the edge, tried to figure out which way was north. It was toward the open waters, out beyond the bay at Two-Mile Gate.

I had stopped for a few minutes before picking up my son from preschool. I wanted time to think out which way my writing efforts might go: several projects had been tumbling around, and I was longing to get some clarity and sink my teeth into one project.

And then, with my feet on the edge of the silvery water, I thought of the structure of a complex sentence. In a complex sentence, there are two clauses with a subject and verb, but because of the subordinate conjunction, one of them can’t stand on its own. Like:

Because she felt confused, the woman decided to take a walk.

The clause The woman decided to take a walk can stand on its own, but if you heard someone say, Because she felt confused, you would be left waiting. The because makes it a subordinate clause, which is certainly interesting, but not able to stand on its own. Another example:

When the woman felt afraid of being unseen, she often turned to writing.


Until I write something important, I won’t be important.

When I thought of this complex sentence structure, I knew there was something in it for me to listen to. An invitation, I think, to let my writing shift back into a subordinate clause in this sentence-structure paradigm of my identity.

For me, writing is a doing that in my deep core I often confuse with my being. We humans often make this deep shift between doing and being with all kinds of vocations—parenting, teaching, painting, pastoring. We have a tendency to let our doing, even the most sacred work and from the most profound sense of calling, become a part of us that is not dependent on our being. Instead, this vocation strives to become our “independent clause,” the part of the identity that keeps trying to stand on its own.

I write. I teach. I help. I mother. I father. I work. I earn. I make. I do.

I know my independent clause is hardly ever: I am.

It’s hardly ever: I am God’s beloved.

As I stood on the edge of the water, low oak bowers framing the bay, I looked to the north and wanted to say yes to this gentle invitation. It was such a gracious invitation, so full of love and affirmation for—me, my own self, my being. I might confuse my being and my doing, but the one who created me doesn’t. And grace helps me remember that my doing cannot receive divine love the way my being can: it is my being, not my doing, that becomes of the site of being beloved.

How I want to say yes to this. How I want my doing to be my subordinate clauses, to be warmed and lit and kept alive by the independent clause that they are connected to: I am God’s beloved.