Sunday, March 18, 2012

Forgiveness

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free."  Galatians 5:1

Forgiveness.  Such a powerful word.  Forgiveness seems to have so many varying definitions.  The way I view forgiveness now is drastically different than I used to.  Here is just a glimpse of my forgiveness story...

It was almost the end of the summer that year in July of 2003.  My husband and I had taken a group of teenagers on a week long missions trip to the breathtaking state of Alaska.  We were there for about seven days to host week long sessions of Vacation Bible School in several different venues to the boys and girls there.  We had a great group of teens with us to teach the children and learn what it meant to serve others.

As usual, the teens all stayed with host families.  On the first night, as my husband and I dropped off the only two girls of the group at their host house, I felt a little uneasy with the arrangments.  The family had a small camping trailer outside their house, which was where the girls were to stay.  As we pulled away, I just didn't feel good about leaving them there to sleep outside the house of the family in a strange place.  After about ten minutes of driving, we decided to turn around and go pick them up to stay at our host house that week instead.  The girls were relieved when we returned to get them.

Our host family that week was great.  Each night, we all stayed up talking and playing cards until late as the sun didn't set in Anchorage until about 1am during the summer.  One night, however I was feeling a little tired and worn out from the day and decided to head to bed early as the rest of them stayed up.  I don't know what woke me up later that night, but it was late and I noticed my husband had not yet come to bed so I went downstairs to check on him.  As I came down the stairs, I noticed him and one of the girls in an uncomfortable position just "joking around."  It made me uncomfortable.  He came to bed right after that and I asked him about it.  They were just wrestling, he said.  He was a very playful person so while I wanted to accept that, it just made me feel uneasy and I told him it looked totally inappropriate.  He was quickly apologetic and asked me to hold him accountable if I ever noticed anything that appeared to be inappropriate.

When we returned home with the group, I started to notice little flirtations between him and one of the girls.  Since he was always full of energy anyway and he had seemed so sincere about his ignorance to the situation in Alaska, I thought I was just overreacting.  Plus, I was close to the girls in the group there and we all had great relationships with one another.

Shortly after that incident, my husband and I moved out of state to lead another group of teenagers.  It wasn't long before I started noticing the same types of things that I saw in Alaska.  I would mention them to my husband but he always assured me that he simply loved teenagers and wanted to see them grow to be spiritually mature so he took and active role in their lives.  "How could I argue with that?" I thought.

As I noticed more and more situations involving my husband and the teenage girls in our group, I became more and more neurotic.  Each time I talked to my husband about it, and each time he had a response that sounded logical to me and made it difficult for me to reason against.  But I didn't feel right.  It didn't look right.  By this point, other people were noticing the things that I was noticing.  Maybe they felt the same as I did or maybe they were afraid to point a finger at the friendly man that everyone liked because they never said anything.

One day in particular is tattooed into my mind.  I think it is because it is a view of forgiveness that is contrasted to what I believe now about the subject.  It was a regular day just like any other.  My husband and his buddy were out at the local home improvement store picking up some things while I was home feeling completely vulnerable and emotional as my hormones were out of whack after the birth of our son.  Aside from caring for a newborn, my days were consumed with wondering what my husband was up to.  Which girl was he spending time with?  Who was he emailing or texting secretly?  Which family was he becoming chummy with so that he could spend more time with their daughter?  Believe me when I say that it was all consuming for me.  It would be safe to say that it became an obsession that controlled every part of my life.  By this point, I struggled with my own relationships with the girls in the group because I wondered which ones my husband was having an inappropriate relationship with.
One day I couldn't take it anymore.  I couldn't stand feeling so on edge all the time.  The snooping.  The checking up.  The suspicion.  All of it.  I hated feeling the way I was feeling.  This was supposed to be one of the best times of my life and I felt like I was going crazy.

I decided that what I really needed to do was to trust my husband like he had been asking me to do.  To stop looking for evidence of wrongdoing and believe that he really just loved teenagers and wanted to see them grow.  One thing he always used to say was Rules - Relationships = Rebellion.  That made sense to me.  I reasoned that the problem must be me.  I needed to forgive my husband for the incident in Alaska and stop looking for anything that might prove that he was anything other than a loving youth pastor.

On that day that is tatooed into my mind, I can see myself sitting in the tan recliner in the living room that our families purchased for us when I was pregnant.  I reached for my cell phone on the side table and dialed his number.  When he answered, I simply said, "I forgive you."  I could almost hear tears in his eyes and the gratitude from his tone at the sound of those words.  He was so thankful to hear those words, he said.  I felt like we could finally move forward and forget about all of those things I had questioned in the past.  This was going to be our fresh start.  Although it was short-lived, at that moment I felt relief, which I am convinced is the best feeling in the world.

While things seemed happy again for a few weeks, it wasn't long before I started feeling uneasy again.  I still noticed the same type of behavior from my husband and while I kept trying to convince myself that it was okay and I had chosen to forget about the past because of my gesture of forgiveness, I think I knew deep down that it really wasn't okay.  For a time, I just pushed down those feelings of suspicion and jealousy.  I wished I could get past my insecurities.

Sometime later, we moved again, almost entirely due to the fact that parents and also the senior pastor were starting to notice the same things that I was seeing.  My husband didn't go right back into youth ministry when we moved that time.  Instead, he looked for jobs in the secular world.  While he was in the middle of his job search, however, he volunteered a lot of his time during the day at the church we were attending.  He started forming relationships with the staff and congregation there.  He was just a very jovial kind of guy and people instantly liked him.  When the youth leader at that church left, the position was immediately offered to my husband because of the relationships he had formed.  The two of us met with the church board and discussed the ministry and also a little bit of the past on a surface level.  We had been out of ministry for several months and again, I felt like this was our chance for a fresh start.  God is a God of second chances.  As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.  My husband and I accepted the position.

As history might have predicted, everything was still the same.  My husband's behavior was still questionable around the girls and I was still neurotic and suspicious day after day.  I went through the same reasoning as before and decided I needed to stop holding onto the past and really forgive my husband this time so that I could find some relief.  After about a year in ministry at our church, we decided to have another baby.  I felt like it was a good step in our marriage.  If we were both ready to have another child, it was proof that I had forgiven him and that we were in a good place.

There we were.  We had an almost three year old at home and one on the way.  Life was great.  Or it should have been, anyway.  But it wasn't.  My husband was gone all the time... all in the name of servant ministry, of course.  He would get up early and leave the house at 5am in order to go to Starbucks and do his morning devotionals or prepare for his mid-week message away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  Who can argue with that?  At this time, we were both working at the church.  He was gone then, too.  He was out getting snacks for the snack shop in the youth room.  He was out visiting people in hospitals.  He was out helping families with odd projects around the house.  He was out visiting some of the teen guys at school that day.  He was out.  There was always a good, spiritual reason.

At this point, I was pretty much sick of it all.  I couldn't take living like this anymore.  After our second child was born and I was home on maternity leave, I expected that he would want to be home with us on his day off.  But there was always something else to do.  I started to realize that maybe all this forgiving I was doing was getting us nowhere.  There had to be more to forgiveness than saying a few words, trying to forget the past, and move forward acting like nothing was wrong.  I knew that we could not live like this anymore.  I could not live like this anymore.

When my second son was five weeks old, I realized that I needed to change my approach.  My husband was feeling no adverse effects from his behavior because I was feeling them for him.  I thought that maybe if I took the kids and went to stay with my parents for a few days, he would miss us and change his ways.  I thought it would get his attention.  Instead, when it came out two days later that he had been having an affair with a student for eight months, I was devestated.

After about a month, people at church told me that I needed to forgive.  I wanted to forgive and I felt guilty that I was still holding onto the pain.  I felt like I was not behaving as a Christian woman should.  But it hurt so much.  I had spent so much time in the years leading up to that point trying to pretend like everything was okay and was going to get better.  All of my forgiveness had not changed my circumstances.  Instead, now I was alone with two young children, living in my parent's house indefinitely.

I started seeing someone whom I am now convinced was a God-sent, Christian therapist.  She taught me that forgiveness is a process.  When everyone else was telling me that I should just forgive and basically get over it, this woman was giving me permission to experience genuine grief and emotion over what was an earth-shattering experience for me.  What happened was not okay and I did not have to pretend like it was anymore.  It was okay for me to be angry.  It was okay for me to feel depressed.  Those feelings were a normal part of the grieving process.

In addition to learning that forgiveness is a process, I've also learned that forgiveness is letting go.  I never have to say what happened was okay.  I don't have to have a good relationship with the people involved.  But I do have to let God deal with them instead of trying to do it myself.  Forgiveness does not mean the circumstances will change.  It does not mean that other people will change.  Instead, I am changed.  I no longer have to carry that burden around like a millstone around my neck.  I am free.

My husband and I eventually divorced about a year later.  Even during that transition time, I still held onto the burden and tried to change him myself.  I would quote scripture to him when we talked.  I would leave things on his car for him to read.  While he never changed, I still don't really regret doing that.  But I realized back then that while I would probably not speak those words to him again... "I forgive you"... that I needed to do just that.  I did not try to fix our relationship anymore.  I did not try to fix him anymore.  Instead, I gave it over to God.  I had to let him go.  I had to stop seeing what he was up to.  I had to stop finding things to give him that might help him.  I had to stop all of it.

It didn't happen instantly.  Maybe that happens for some people, but it didn't happen for me.  For me, true forgiveness was a process.  Honestly, I wonder if that is even humanly possible or if instant forgiveness is really instant denial.  God offers instant forgiveness when we come to him with a broken and contrite spirit, but maybe that is a divine trait.  I had to work through the grief process before I was able to come to acceptance and forgiveness.  I had to go through the shock and denial of the situation... the anger... the depression... the bargaining with God.  I also had to forgive the girls involved.  And I had to forgive myself for my codependency and enabling through a false view of forgiveness.  Sometimes I feel like I'm still in that stage of forgiving myself.  Sometimes I like to hold onto myself instead of dropping my guard and allowing God to mold me.  But He is still faithful and brings circumstances into my lift that force me to do that when I struggle to do it myself.

I don't really know how to end this but I just wanted to share my story.  I think there are a lot of people out there who feel the same way that I used to... that to forgive means that you have to pretend like everything is okay.  That you have to deny yourself and your own God-given feelings and emotions.  That you have to make nice and allow yourself to be mistreated.  That is not the abundant life that God wants for us.  Forgiveness is a process and it is for freedom that He has set us free.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Singleness and Finding One's Own Identity

"But my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus."  Philippians 4:19

I just finished reading what is perhaps the best book I have ever read.  I made mention of it in a post the other day but it has made such a great impact on me, that it is worth mentioning again.  In fact, I may draw several posts from it over time.  The book is one by Naomi Zacharias titled The Scent of Water, Grace for Every Kind of Broken.  I would recommend it to anyone who has ever experienced any type of brokenness, especially within relationship.

Being a single thirty-something, I sometimes feel lonely.  Sometimes being a single parent compounds those feelings when I see my married friends and their families.  I see them doing things together as a family and I miss that.  When my boys are away for a weekend with their dad and I am home, I sometimes wish I had someone special to come and take me out for the evening.  I dream of walking along the beach just talking about whatever comes to mind under the light of the evening moon or even just sharing nice, adult conversation over a cup of coffee.  Even still, I always try to make the most of my time alone and cherish having time to myself.

I've been thinking more in depth about singleness recently.  Back in generations before mine, women went to college not for knowledge and personal enrichment but to find a husband.  Even in society today, it doesn't seem like things have changed all that much.  Finding your "perfect match" is only as far away as the click of a mouse.  So it only seems fitting that finding a mate is what would make my life more fulfilling as well, right?

When a relationship ends, it's a common thing to hear well-meaning friends say things like, "The right person will come along someday," or alude to the fact that life will be happy and complete again once they have found another relationship.

I'm not going to lie.  I would like to get married again someday.  But recently I've been realizing that maybe singleness has a purpose of it's own.  Maybe, just maybe I have a purpose to fulfill just the way that I am.  Perhaps the Lord created me and has given me my own unique gifts and abilities to glorify His Name because I am His daughter... a child of the King.  Maybe that means that even without a ring on my finger, he may still bring His calling on my life into completion.  I am okay with that.

In Naomi's book, she writes, "...Whether part of a shared adventure found in relationship or one lived out in the independent spirit of singleness, every woman has an equal role of importance in the opportunity and shared responsibility of a life course specifically given to her.  No person is called to play second fiddle to another, for every life is called to an individual purpose... we live in a culture that can oftentimes leave the one who is single feeling diminished or very small... every person is seen and possesses an overflowing cup of value."

She continues, "The responsibility of each woman is to find the particularity of her calling, so to speak.  It may be in concert with the calling of another; it may be a solitary path.  But within each picture remains responsibility and opportunity of individual and epic proportion, and there is an individual triumph in distinctiveness when each woman finds the place where her own identity is secured.  In this way, every life is ultimately an individual adventure of finding her place in God's plan.  To surrender that is to surrender who you are."

Another thing I have realized is that in the frantic search for a mate, I'm really trying to fulfill an unmeet need.  In doing so, I am looking to the created to fill the place in my soul that can only be filled by the Creator.  That is not what I want to offer to someone else who has his own unique and important opportunities and life course given to him.  Just as I want to be loved for who I am, brokenness, baggage and all, I want to be able to reciprocate the same.  Because of that, I choose to look to my one true, Savior to meet all of my needs.

Dear Lord, you have created me in Your image and each day You continue to mold me into the woman you created me to be.  Thank you for looking on me with all of my flaws and insecurities and loving me anyway.  Thank you for teaching me that it is not a husband that makes me complete, it is You and You alone.  I pray that You would continue to fill the lonely places in my heart and bring about beauty from my ashes.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Scarred

I feel like my life can be categorized into two parts: before divorce and after. It was that one event that forever changed my life more than any other aside from salvation.

I read through the things I have written, now almost four and a half years later, and I think to myself, "Geez woman, get over it!" I feel a twinge of guilt and embarrassment to keep going back to that single event in history.

But it's not so much that I'm hung up on it, it's just that it is a pivitol marking on the timeline of my life. And the thing is, I don't wish that it wasn't there. It's not a longing for what was or even what could have been. It's just... a scar. It's part of who I am now. It characterizes every part of me to the core of my being.

Right now, I'm reading one of the most unique and interesting books I have ever read, titled The Scent of Water: Grace for Every Kind of Broken by Naomi Zacharias. She talks about her time spent with women around the world who have had to endure some of the most horrific circumstances from women working in brothels in Amsterdam to the cultural ritual of bride burning in India. The jacket of the book describes, "The Scent of Water will open your eyes to the complexities of the world and healing power of God's grace, showing you that pain can also be beauty, and how each are found in the unlikeliest of places." One of my favorite quotes from the book so far is this:

The truth is, scars are an important part of our stories... A scar can remain as a tribute to what happened; it tells us something went wrong, that someone got hurt. A scar lets us know that she survived.

I am so thankful to say that I am a survivor. I am a survivor. Something went wrong. I got hurt. And I survived. For that purpose, I'm going to stop pretending like the scar is not there. It will always be there. It's a part of me now.

After that pivotal dot on my timeline is a string of smaller dots. They each represent the process of survival. In each dot, there is a view of God's grace.