Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sentenced and Set Free

Remember, Seek, Surrender
My Testimony in Scripture

2007 - 2008

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.
Isaiah 40:1-2

No one, as a child, dreams of one day growing up and getting divorced.  Most little girls plan their weddings long before they even like boys, but they certainly do not plan their dissolutions or fantasize about their lives post separation.  Honestly, I had never pined for marriage growing up, but when I did get married, I knew on some very basic level that I would die before I would get divorced.  Little did I know.

Writing about my divorce is not something that I enjoy.  Being a survivor of adult domestic violence is not a reality with which I am particularly fond of living.  It is an uncomfortable and tense venture, and if it were not for the fact that my testimony of God's faithfulness and redemption is all wrapped up in the story of a failed marriage, I would not describe it here.  (There is a reason I use the song Martyrs and Thieves as my testimony song: "I've never been much for the bearing of souls in the presence of any man. I'd rather stick to myself all safe and secure; in the arms of a sinner I am.")

In some ways, I feel about my marriage and divorce the way someone might feel about having served a prison sentence.  I do not think that this piece of my past is what is most true about me as a person; I do not want it to define me.  It is not what I want people to see when they look at me or to know when they think of me.  Yet it is a part of me.  And frankly, though once again I would prefer not to admit it, I still experience feelings of shame about my story at times.

There were leaders in the church, leaders I loved and respected, who blamed and reprimanded me for my divorce.  Only one ever came back to apologize to me once he had all the facts.  I think the others are still convinced that I willfully sinned by saying no to the devastation of addiction and by letting go.  So it was that in that first year I was devastated not only by an unfaithful and abusive man, but by those in the community who condemned me for that which was largely out of my control, saying, "Divorce is a sin. God hates divorce."

But I praise God because, as I prayed through that difficult first year, it was God Himself who had something to say about such things.  It was as I read scripture and prayed one night that I was given the following dream:

I lay in a hospital room on a gurney staring at the florescent lights and white walls above and all around me.  It was a big, open room.  The curtains were pulled around in bunches and the medical equipment was clustered in spots.  It appeared to be an emergency room.  The distant noise of voices and heart monitors and other general hubbub came in from an open door.  I felt very alone. 

Then someone walked into the room, a man wearing white scrubs.  He was roughly in his thirties, dark and lean.  I knew him immediately; it was Christ.  And when I saw his face he looked very sad. 

 At that moment I realized there was something else in the room, someone else, beside and behind me. I turned my head and saw that there was another gurney laying parallel to mine and an operating table between us. On the gurney lay my husband, still but breathing, his face turned away.  And then I saw, draped over and laying on the table, strands of light - big and small, coarse and smooth - connecting me to him. Many of them were severed, broken, draped like cut and withering vines, hacked and brutalized. But there were many still connected; a thick, multi-cord strand of varied light at our chests in particular still joined our hearts.  Something similar connected our minds.   A myriad of smaller cords intertwined these two, like sinew and tissue around muscles.  It was both beautiful and somewhat shocking.  

I began to cry.  The man on the other bed did not stir.

Then Christ stepped up to the operating table and looked me in the face.

"This is why I hate divorce," He said, and I saw the tears in his eyes, too. He picked up a scalpel and, one by one, I watched as He gently cut the ties that remained, weeping silently all the while.  But when He got to the heart, I had to look away.

Finally, with the last cut, the man on the other gurney, the person that was once joined to me with cords of light, slipped away - like someone slips into the sleep of death or slips down into a pool of water.  Christ helped me to stand and walk with Him and He and I departed together, me with cords of light still spangling from body like the tentacles of a star fish, shriveling and shrinking, lost without the relationship from which they had grown.  They were not exactly me or mine, but they were not exactly his, either.  Even with the Great Physician, it would take a long time to heal.

So let not man (or woman) hack at the beautiful cords of light and life that connect the two who have become one (Matt 19:6, Mark 10:9). Let them not brutalize and do violence on this beautiful, fragile life that is neither one alone but a new creation that only grows from both together.  It is a life that must be nurtured, guarded and protected (Mal 2:16). For if God hates divorce, it is that it breaks His heart even as it tears ours apart, and He weeps with us in and over this death and dismemberment of life. If God hates divorce, then what He grieves is the sinful acts that sow a harvest of destruction that end in divorce, this loss of life.

For though I do not find the words "God hates divorce" in scripture, as I prayed about my dream, God brought to me to a passage that says: "I will not be mocked, a man reaps what he sows" (Gal 6:7-8). If you sow to the flesh you WILL reap all kinds of death. You cannot avoid it. But if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap life. It is just the way of things.

And so I would go so far as to say that divorce is not the sin, it is the death produced by the sin, inevitable when sin has been sown and reaches its harvest (James 1:15). The sin is the hardness of heart that sows the seed in the first place (Matt 19:8).

My marriage was still-born.  I was released from carrying the dead thing with which I had lived for a significant portion of my life through the divorce that came with God's decree, "Comfort, comfort my people, speak tenderly to her and tell her that her hard service is completed."

For a long time I still felt the man that was once my husband, I felt him in my skin, the way a survivor of war still feels a limb lost in battle.  But with this passage of comfort spoken over me in 2007, this was the year that it was gone and done.  The severed strands of light had been restored and were once again woven back into the fabric of my being.

It was 11 years from conception to death. Shortly after God gave me the verses above, my ex was sentenced to 11 years in prison for violence perpetrated after I left.

He was sentenced and I was set free.

*     *     *

A note to the Church:

Do not condemn divorce or its victims.  The seeds that bear such fruit are sown long before the day of their harvest, often during the creation of the relationship itself.  Help them tear up the seed  that produces death in their souls.  Help them to sow new seeds of light and life.  For souls are eternal, but marriage is not.  So you may or may not save them from divorce, but you do a work pleasing to God that cultivates the fruit of His Spirit.  This is the work of The Kingdom. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Carpe Diem, Opus Dei

As I take the time to remember the beautifully invasive story of God and His redemption of 'Jacob,' I find myself in the middle of the spring semester with the snowy, frigid mornings of February already knocking at my door. The two week intensive classes are finished, at least the portion that involves my nightly trek to sit in a room with 20 other students for a nearly 5 hour block. Papers still loom along with preparations for the upcoming trip along the Mediterranean. Lent beckons, my favorite time of the year.

I experience mixed emotions as I look forward.

In the last year I have chosen to balance my entire life on the precarious point where faith, identity, and responsibility meet. I have sought God and His vision not just for a season or a year, not just for a career, a to-do list, or a set of goals, but for my life's work. I have chosen to hold back, to live in the tension, rather than to gallop full-throttle into the practical arena where I have lived to perform, to jump through whatever hoops I find there simply because I'm good at running and I love to jump.

If you've ever seen a nervous horse you might understand how difficult it is for a runner NOT to run or a jumper NOT to jump. In the mildest expressions of tension, the animal will sidle and paw and swing its stately head this way and that, maneuvering its equine nose so that its wide-set eyes can more easily examine whatever might warrant a sudden change of position or a good reason to GO. It might even throw its weight around by leaning or nosing or with a sidestep that simply pushes you away. Or it might take advantage of a good opportunity to nip. Should it stand still, for whatever reason, you might catch its muscles twitching, its tail flicking, or its eyes perhaps growing wide and white.

I have chosen to stand still, however twitchy that might make me. Moreover, I have also chosen to submit myself to the halter and reigns of classes, the disciplines of which are aimed to help me seek and to answer this question of my heart, the question of God's leading, the question of ministry. For just a semester I have given God my head to see what He might do with it.

Literally, figuratively, and metaphorically!

Similarly, I have chosen to travel the Mediterranean, as I traveled Africa once, in search of the movement of God's Spirit. Just as God turned my heart to home and to my people then, I hope that He will turn my heart to His vision now. In fact, now that I think about it, every two years we venture out together: It was to KC in 2005, to Africa in 2007, and to Israel in 2009. Every two years we have gone and He has used the opportunity to turn my heart toward what He will.

What a lovely and unexpected tradition!

And in the midst of these larger-than-life things, I have also chosen my responsibilities in the mundane, in the pressing, in the everyday existence and the demands of the practical where I can be tempted to lose the magic of my soul. I choose to steward my time, my home, my job, my finances, my relationships, and to face the decisions that must be made about each.

And so I have chosen to seek God.
I have chosen to rearrange my life for Him.
I have chosen school.
I have chosen this trip to the Mediterranean.
I have chosen responsibility and the decisions that I must face.

But as I write I suddenly wonder...
Have I chosen God's ministry?

The question strikes me with no small amount of terror, like the realization that God's conception in Mary is no less than what He asks from us all.

It is clear that God has chosen me.
It is clear that I have been in the process of choosing Him back.
But is it possible that all of these years of graduate study angst and wrestling with my identity in Christ has been about another opportunity to choose, and my not choosing?

The truth is, I hate choosing. I suck at it really. It's why I like sudoku puzzles and programming spreadsheets. They're not about choosing anything but about plugging in a pre-existing logic to get a particular and pre-determined result, usually defined by someone else and borrowed by me.

Do I choose God's ministry?

Of course, my first inclination, besides panic, is, "How could I not?" Haven't I been choosing Him this whole time?

But I know that it is not as easy as all that. I must make an intentional act of the will.

Do I choose God's ministry?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Worthy, Not Worthless Words

Remember, Seek, Surrender
My Testimony in Scripture

"If you will repent, I will restore you that you may serve me;
if you utter worthy, not worthless words, you will be my spokesperson."

Jeremiah 15:19

An Excerpt from a Blog, January 14, 2006
It snowed my first day in Kansas City - great, huge flakes that clung to each other as they drifted through the sky, creating wispy cotton trails in the air and landing in strange patterns on the back deck. I ran out onto the front porch in my "happy bunny" pajamas, the ones that say DUMB DUMB DUMB in a rainbow of colors on a backdrop of bright yellow, my hair pulled back into what is affectionately called my "frump-girl" pony-tail. (For those of you who don't know, "frump-girl," apparently, is my alter ego who tends to surface on bad hair days and early mornings.) After standing in amazed delight (you'd have thought I had never seen snow before), Bailey and I ran around my front yard in mad glee, barking and giggling, respectively...

It was a long drive out to Missouri from California, and an even longer journey for my spirit. It started with a flood, was accented by tornado strength winds and a few attack-tumbleweeds, and ended with a Super Walmart the size of my home town. The snow was my icing on the cake. It was also heart-breaking as it finally sank in with every passing mile and each passing day that the old is gone.

Something inside of me convulses at the thought. The old is gone.

And yet how I wish that the old was gone! The memories, the heart-ties, the child-like hope that somehow things do work out and love conquers all, the haunting rejection, the occasional nightmares; I wish I could purge myself of those things, that I could be rid of the reminders and the loss and the emptiness and the sadness.

Life goes on. Cities come and go, a stream of lights. Days come and go, a processional of moments, uncomfortably unfamiliar, strangely vulnerable. There is unmistakable joy here. But there is undeniable anger and unshakable grief, too.

* * *

Just before I received this passage, just before making the long trek to Kansas City, I sat in a coffee shop with my mentor and her son. In a strange turn of conversation, they challenged the paradigm with which I had grown up, a paradigm that said women had no place in leadership in the church and had no call to ministry.

I had never considered such things before, but as they talked, strange ideas began to percolate. I remembered my confusion at 17 when every university in the western US was banging down my door, asking me to come, and I did not know what to do. I considered law. I considered psych. I considered communications and music and English Lit. But the only thing I really wanted to do, the only thing that really mattered to me, was learning about God.

I remembered high school speech classes in which I took great joy crafting messages that intertwined music and scripture and life. I remembered getting in trouble when I was about 8 - maybe 10 years old - for "preaching" at my sisters. I even chuckled at the thought that, when I was still in grade school, I wanted to push that old pastor off of the podium and tell people what was really going on.

Could it be that I wasn't so confused after all? Could it be that I simply lacked the community structure necessary for making sense of God's equipping, God's passion, God's call?

There is no way that I could know how that simple line of questioning would begin to change ... everything.

But before I could even consider such things, God had more to teach me about what it means to repent. The year prior, 2005, had been a year of inventorying a dead relationship and walking through the stages of grief and divorce. But God wasn't finished; He had to take me further back, back to examine hurts and character defects the pre-existed my marriage. Living in a manner worthy of repentance means looking at the fabric of one's soul, of one's bent, and taking it before God and others to be healed, re-shaped, grown, redeemed. It means making decisions about one's future based on the reality of one's past - not living in the past, but not living in denial of it, either.

The analogy is one of a recovering alcoholic who really has no business walking down the alcohol aisle in the grocery store, particularly if he has little sobriety time or if that is what gets him into trouble. He will never be wise enough to make that decision unless he has faced and owned that he has a problem, examined his particular set of weaknesses, and then accepted that he will have to live his life differently because of it - perhaps forever. This is the humility of repentance. It is accepting what is true about ourselves and living it, submitting to the consequences.

This was the year that God began articulating an unmistakable call on my life - a call to live in a manner worthy of repentance. I look back now and see that this verse was like the first whisper of God's desire to use me, to use what I had come from and through, to use my testimony, to create and solidify the commitment necessary to be a minister of God's hope, forgiveness, and peace. I look back now and this verse embodies my theology of ministry; I have nothing to offer the world but my repentance, my recovery, and somehow as I do that, I have something to offer the world ... worthy and not worthless words ... words that testify to God.