A teacher I respect recently talked about Light. Dark. Light. – There is light on the other side of darkness. I can attest to this, but you have to go through the dark to get there…
(This is the third post of my journey – You can ready the first and second by clicking here.)
After I changed my entire life – job, home, friends – I began to see a path to a better life. I am a firm believer that God guides us to people that can help us grow and become who he had in mind when he created us. He did this for me, time and time again.
As I began this new life, I had a family that took me in as one of their own when I was so far from home. They were, and are, a loving couple with a strong marriage. They were near my parents age, and I saw in them what I longed for myself. A marriage that was a true partnership, with deep affection for one another. The CEO I worked for at my new job was also a kind and upstanding man with a strong spiritual life, who mentored me professionally and demonstrated integrity and kindness in a corporate world. I was in a small study group with a some young women through my church. They helped me grow in my faith and became friends. One even lived with me for a while and provided some protection from the darkness that overtook me when I was alone, although she wasn’t aware of this important role she played.
My new job also included managing a partnership with a company in the Midwest. The people that make up this company are some of the most amazing and genuine people I’ve ever met. As I spent more time with them professionally, we became friends.
The pastor at my church had done an incredibly grace-filled series on how affairs happen and his description of the innocuous way a friendship can grow in dangerous directions rang true. He suggested setting these ‘fenceposts’ that protect everyone, and even though I believed I would never ever allow that to happen again, I set up fenceposts all around me, to be sure. I made it a point to meet the wives of the men I worked with, not because I feared that I would allow any type of relationship to develop, but because I respected them all so much. Meetings that began as a personal fencepost, eventually became treasured friendships.
Also, I will admit that I set up these fenceposts because of the shame I still carried. These friends were loving Christians – good people – and they thought I was, too. I was doing all the right things by that point. I treasured their friendship, but I didn’t trust that if anyone knew the truth they would want anything to do with me. I just couldn’t believe that ‘good’ people would still love me if they knew the truth. So I took steps to protect them, and me, in case anyone were to learn of my past. This was also a good description of how I felt about God. I just could not believe that he really liked me, knowing everything. I was starting to think he could forgive me, to a point, but actually liking me was inconceivable.
Looking back I’m surprised I couldn’t see the handprint, of a God who very much liked me, all over my life. All around me I was surrounded by good people, who just kept showing up. Not holier than thou, not judgmental or condemning, just good people trying to live good lives. They all gave me hope not by any direct thing they did, but just by the lives they led. It was a powerful lesson that we have a profound impact on people without ever knowing it’s happening. God will sometimes place you in people’s lives and your only job is to be loving and kind so that they can believe that they can be loving and kind, too.
To those of you who are thinking, “She’s talking about me.” Yes, I am. Thank you. You didn’t know what you were doing, but you saved my life. Literally.
Every single one of you that I met via that partnership – every single person – you changed me for the better. I am still friends with many of you and you have never stopped influencing me. I’m also still close with my family away from family – they even somehow managed to retire not far from me but states away from where we met, and I’ve watch my former roomie build a beautiful life and family. You are all a gift.
Eventually, I began to believe I could still live a good life. As a Christian, my final leap was believing that even though I had done what was unthinkable, God knew the path I would take all along and his grace was sufficient. This is the mystical beauty of my faith, this singular offer of unearned redemption and favor. I had mentally worked with my therapist to a place where I could understand and even grieve for the hurt girl who had made such painful choices, but there was still this knot of shame that I couldn’t seem to free myself of. There did come a moment though, when I trusted that God still had a plan for me, that He would still welcome me into the room.
In a fitting moment of foreshadowing, I was baptized on Father’s Day. It was a true renewal of my life. God and I settled into a steady pace, with me just far enough ahead that he couldn’t grab ahold of me and stop me. It was a strange dichotomy, this feeling of grace and forgiveness, but still this fear somewhere deep inside that it might be taken from me at any minute. I was better, but I wasn’t healed. I trusted God, but I wasn’t exactly sure what would happen if he caught me. I was allowed at the banquet, but only to serve the more honored guests. And so, we ran. Steady and consistent, together and apart.
The best description for what happened next is to stick with this race analogy. For anyone who has run cross-country in track you know that everyone settles into a pace for the middle portion of the race. No one really changes position a great deal, everyone just runs their own race. Then there is a point in the race where everyone kicks into high gear. You are nearing the finish and you go all in – a hard sprint to the finish.
About four years into this new life, my family started asking when I would be moving back home – a lot. I consistently told them never. The main driver to stay put was my church. I had found a home that allowed me to develop a great love for my faith, and I was terrified that the churches of my youth would steal that from me were I to move back home. But finally over Christmas one year, my family took me to a new church in town – and when we pulled in the first thing I noticed was that it had the same name as my church. Then we went in, and I knew that whoever had built this church had been to, or knew, the pastor of my church. It felt safe. It felt like an invitation. Within a few months I moved back to Missouri, and God began to sprint.
My family introduced me to a family friend about a month after I moved home. They had been talking us up to each other and so we agreed to go on a date – well, I did. (I would later learn that he wasn’t sure it was a date or just showing the new girl around town). In either case, we went on our first date – Cinco de Mayo, 2006. We had both been divorced for years. I had tried numerous Christian dating programs and sites in Atlanta, he had endured many match making attempts over the years, and at this point we were both resigned that it just might not be in the cards to meet someone. So, with less than high hopes, we went out.
We got married eleven weeks later. We were quirky in the same ways, we shared a similar faith, and we just knew, right from the start, that we were a match. We did, however, agree to wait at least a year before having a baby – we were crazy, but we were trying to be a little less crazy where we could. So a year passed and we knew our relationship was strong. We decided to try. I got pregnant almost immediately – which shocked me. At this point, I started living a bit of a dual life once again. Happy and excited on the outside, terrified on the inside. I believed I was loved, but there was still a part of me that couldn’t trust or accept that I was forgiven. I still feared the cosmic judgemental God from my childhood who was waiting to strike me down – and this was when it would happen. I didn’t deserve to be a mother. So those nine months were filled with unspeakable hope and joy, and at times, unbridled fear. Of course, I couldn’t talk with anyone, my secrets were my own. So I just lived in that tension – God was sprinting towards me and I was trying to desperately to maintain the distance. I couldn’t trust that if I were caught I wouldn’t get the punishment I deserved. I couldn’t risk it.
I went into labor the evening before my due date. We went in and I labored throughout the night with little progress. They came in the next morning and announced an emergency c-section was in order. Twenty minutes later, God caught me.
No matter how much I wanted to trust in his love, no matter how many sermons I heard, or books I read, it was inconceivable that I could truly be completely forgiven. There was no way for me to believe it in my bones. But then….
God hides things in our lives for us to only understand in hindsight. These secrets that show us how He has loved us all along. You see, I had known my daughter’s name since I was a child. It was my middle name, my mother’s, my grandmother’s, my great grandmothers – on both sides of my family tree. I thought it was a beautiful family name and I dreamed of the little girl who would one day carry it on. But when they placed her in my arms and I whispered her name for the very first time, it was no longer just a family name. It was a promise, a gift, a confirmation. When God finally caught me – he gave me what He had been offering all along. He gave me Grace. My daughter’s name is, and had always been, Grace.
And in that moment I knew, I was forgiven; wholly accepted, completely loved. I felt like I took the first full breath of my life in that moment. Unmerited favor, grace. He gave me Grace.
No matter how many good choices I made, or how hard I worked to build a good life, I needed that unmerited favor. I had done things that couldn’t be fixed. I had made messes that I could not clean up. The beauty of my faith is this profound but simple gift that it has been fixed, it is made clean. I don’t understand it and I know many may think I don’t deserve it – and you are surely right. Unmerited favor is exactly that – favor for those who do not deserve it.
Two years later I would get an exclamation mark from God, in the form of my beloved son, Elijah. I began finding rest in my faith. The race was over and the relationship between myself and my God became one of comfort and joy. I trusted him completely.
I thought I was healed. I believed I was whole. I thought the work was done. My faith tradition has within it an ancient story of death and resurrection. It has a confusing teaching that we must die to self, in order to live. I had always understood that to mean that we die to sinful pleasures so that we can enjoy more holy pleasures. I would learn over time, that it means something far different and there is a truth within that teaching that holds enormous power.
About four years after our family was made complete with Elijah, my dad passed away. He had a congenital heart condition that progressed as he aged and eventually that, coupled with COPD, took him from us. Our relationship had been difficult and his passing was hard to accept. I went to therapy to help me deal with the confusing flood of emotions. Early on I began asking my therapist to help me understand how someone could know God and the bible so well, but still not accept grace. Why would someone live with so much shame, if they knew what Christianity really stood for? I searched for how to better understand my dad. I begged her to help me understand. Finally she stopped me and said, “I don’t think we are talking about your dad….what are we really talking about?” She pulled back the curtain and light flooded in. I was living the exact same life. This was my father’s final gift – this showing of my truth as I dug to find his.
Mentally I knew I was forgiven. If I concentrated on what I knew, I trusted God and his love. But my default position was still one of shame. I still had not told anyone about my past. I still doubted in the people that God had put in my life. If life was truly a beautiful banquet put on by God, I was still just allowed to serve, inadequate. And my problem was more so with other people – I didn’t trust righteous Christians to forgive me. I didn’t trust my family and friends to forgive me. It was that damned duality once again. God loves me and I’m forgiven, but I will never tell anyone else who I really am. I thought I could say, “Me and God are good, so I’m all done with that part of my life.” I thought that was enough, but shame cannot co-exist with grace. Shame can not co-exist with grace. I carried forgiveness in my head and shame in my heart.
So I started to quiet my mind and listen. I had no idea what I was getting into. As I continued to unpack my story in therapy and discuss how God might be dealing with me and what this might be leading to, I distinctly heard a very clear message. I could live the rest of my life, as is. I could keep my secrets and still rest assured that I was forgiven completely. That would be just fine. But… I would miss the full and abundant life that was available to me. I would always live a much smaller and lesser life. Wholly forgiven, but never fully healed.
I couldn’t quite believe what I was thinking….I needed to start telling people my story? No, I’m good.
I told God, “Thanks for letting me know all that, especially the part that ‘as is’ was ok – I’m going to go with that. See ya later and let’s talk about something else when I do, ‘k?”
No, not ‘k.
I just kept hearing a prompting, a gentle push – “I put the people in your life that you need. You can trust them.” At the same time, my therapist was telling me of all of the hurt and pain that she deals with from women who have lived a similar story. She talked about how debilitating the shame was for both the men and women, and how silenced they all felt. She talked about how much good could come from someone telling their story.
Finally I struck a deal with God – “I’ll tell four key people in my life and if they stick with me, I’ll tell anyone. I get that you are with me and you aren’t leaving me, but I seriously need at least four flesh and blood people that I can actually touch, to walk with me down here. Give me that, and I’m all in.”
Getting to that point took over a year of hard work. My therapist and I did a therapy called EMDR to process through the trauma’s in my life – it’s a miraculous process. We also talked through what I was feeling I should do. It was a lot of planning and processing to get to the telling of my four. I really didn’t know what to expect. I was sure the four would still love me, but I genuinely feared their disappointment. I didn’t want to change their opinion of who I was as a person. I didn’t want to see my shame reflected back to me. I was terrified, but finally, I was ready.
So I told them…one by one, I found time with each of them and I told them the entire story. I did the one thing that I had feared my entire life. I thought it would be the end of my life. I thought it would kill me.
And it did… just not how I imagined.
Those were the four most beautiful, tender, and grace-filled conversations of my life. All I saw in their eyes, all I heard, was this profound depth of love, sorrow, empathy, and acceptance. The one thing I feared, was the only thing that could heal me. Every lie I had ever believed, finally died. I was made new through their love. Just as my faith has told.
Over the next year I started telling other family members and friends, and each time I was met with love and mercy. I started finding myself in conversations with women, where it was obvious I was supposed to share my story, and I almost always heard, ‘me, too’ – or if not ‘me, too’ then ‘my sister, mother, friend, daughter…’ Someone they loved had been through a similar story but they had never told anyone. They thanked me for sharing my story, they said it was healing. Their words felt familiar to me, like something I had once said. I remembered…
My first steps to healing had been in my church when people would come up to tell their stories. They would share how they had fallen and then walk us through their journey to wholeness. They were the first ones to give me hope. I had always believed that somehow every single person in church, or anywhere for that matter, that looked like they had it all together – had it all together, and always had. I had always believed that I was the only one that had ever made such large mistakes. Then someone would be invited to share their story at church, and I would wait to hear how they had said, “Damn,” once when they stubbed their toe – but now they were forgiven – because that’s the worst I figured most of them had done. But they would share real stories of brokenness and failure, and of hope and restoration. It was the only thing that kept me connected to my faith – these brave broken people shining a light on their mistakes. I realized that I could do that same thing for other people.
I get that not everyone who reads this will be Christian – or spiritual for that matter. All I can tell you is that for me, my faith is real and alive and a thing of beauty that explains how this world works. I think that most of what I learned in church is a bit off from what was really meant. I think it is really hard to wrap our heads around it – but then again gravity is pretty confusing, too – but I still believe in it.
Suddenly all the stories of my faith tradition – all the teaching became real to me in a way that they had not before. Die to self? What a weird concept. Until I realized that the only way to share my story was to set aside my ego and my need to be liked. I would have to expose myself to pain, hate, and judgement in order to live this full and complete life. The idea that God would let me teach and talk in church? Me? Seriously? But the first will be last, and the broken are the only ones that have ever clearly showed the character of God…I am not the first nor the last in a long list of unqualified messes to deliver the good news. Death and resurrection? That is just a crazy story that Jesus lived, except he said to really understand what he is trying to tell us, you would have to be born again, experience the same.
I spent my whole life believing telling my story would kill me. Then I realized that in order to tell my story, I would have to die to everything I thought I knew. And in telling my story, I became a new person. I was set free from so much. Lies, wrong thinking, pain, shame.
I died and then I came back new. And the only way for me to get there was to trust that it was allowed. To trust that whatever you want to call the overarching connective energy of this world – I like to call it Abba – had somehow set things up so that I could die to the lies and come back new. The only way to fully live is to trust that you are fully welcomed, as you are.
Even if you haven’t bought into Christianity and you maybe call God the spaghetti monster or something – you should look into what was really taught in the ancient scriptures by this teacher called Jesus. These truths can be lived outside of the traditional Christian faith as man has defined it. Just like I get to enjoy gravity without understanding it or even being able to explain it, everyone lives in the same world, regardless of the language you use, or what you believe to be true. There is an over-arching truth, energy, and power at work and it is drawing everyone towards love. Long before there was a bible to debate, their was a man who said, trust me, love one another. He explained how the world works using the limited language and understanding of the people at the time. I’ll warn you though, you can study it all you want, but the only way to understand it – is to live it.
Here’s the truth of this world. Every single person can let go of the lies that hold them back and hurt them, die to them, and find a new abundant life. It is available to every single person.
And now I love with a depth I never knew. I accept and give mercy with abandonment. I see with new eyes.
I live with Grace.
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