Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Brighter Place

My favorite holiday movie is A Christmas Carol. I think I love it so much because it is such a redemptive story. I love watching the hardened old man become a boy again, acknowledging the power of his past hurts and the harm he has done to others, and yet finding forgiveness - and giving it - because of Christmas and what it means for the world. But the biggest, best reason I love the story is because I have my own life-version of it. I've been struggling with how to write about this for a while now, but I think the best way is just to do it. Some stories just need to be shared.

In the dark days of December 2009, I was in a dangerously abusive relationship with a man whose mental and emotional instability increased exponentially as the weeks passed. His rage was constant and his capacity for blaming me for everything wrong with his life seemed limitless. He would go from hating me, calling me names, and throwing things at me to crying on his knees with his head in my lap, begging me not to leave him, threatening to kill himself if I did. These mood swings were swift and violent - sometimes lasting only hours so that the kind, understanding man I saw in the morning was a punch-throwing, knife-brandishing maniac by the time darkness fell.

The abuses grew apace with his rage. His screaming-shouting-sobbing spells increased in frequency and though I cared deeply for him, even at that time, I knew I could not stay in the relationship without serious risk to my own life and sanity. There came a day when he threatened to burn down the house we sometimes shared, to burn down my church, to kill me and himself. I came home that evening to find some of my belongings damaged and destroyed, and partially burned pages from a Bible on top of the kitchen stove. Fear crawled over me like ants skittering over my skin. As I was rushing to leave before he turned up, he came in the door and pulled me down the hall to his bedroom - to "talk", he said. The discussion ended up with me dodging heavy books and anything else he could get his hands on to throw and him shrieking obscenities and threats at me. You would think I would have had the sense to leave him then - and it isn't that I didn't want to. But he ended the discussion by threatening to harm himself and others and leaving me feeling responsible for the damage he might cause. That was December 8th, two days after my grandmother passed away; it was ten more days before I was able to leave the relationship.

All through the summer that we were together, he had chipped away at my belief in God. At the time I thought he was questioning and doubting because of his painful past and the hurts of two failed marriages. He was a pastor - my pastor, actually - and he held a lot of authority as such. He kept introducing questions about God's reality; believe me, a seminary-educated person has a lot of knowledge that can easily be turned from building up faith to tearing it down. By that December, I didn't know if I believed in God anymore. My abuser had used my faith to draw me into the relationship in the first place; it was what had brought us together. I was exploring a call to ministry and he was helping me to discern that; he was also my marriage counselor. I had absolute trust in him in the beginning and because of that, I did not believe that he would lie to me or do anything to hurt me. Later on, when the emotional and verbal abuse began I started to question the things he had told me, but the questioning only brought more rage and repercussions. My faith withered - by that December, it was reduced to ashes. I had no functioning belief in God. I felt more alone at that time of my life than I ever had before.

My grandmother died on December 6th. When I was a child, she was instrumental in bringing me to church and helping me to find my way into belief in God. Though I had long since turned away from the fundamentalist structure to which she had introduced me, I had always honored her place in my journey toward faith. Her death rocked me. I knew she had passed on in complete belief even though her life had been difficult at best, and she had spent her last years nearly blind and with a host of health problems. Her faith never wavered. In the days after her death, I found myself dreaming about her each night and waking with images of her careworn face very clear in my mind. I felt she was trying to tell me something important, but I couldn't discern what it might be. I awoke from them feeling frustrated and frightened, as though I was missing some vital point she was trying to make.

During the early morning hours of December 18th I had one last dream about my grandmother. That week had been particularly awful; my partner and I had met with his District Superintendent about his possible return to ministry in the face of our relationship, which had begun during my divorce, and was inappropriate on many levels due to the fact that he was my pastor, adviser, and counselor. The meeting was a fiasco. I didn't want to go in the first place - I wanted out of the relationship and away from him. He lost his temper and yelled, calling his superior a "pharisee" and comparing himself to a persecuted Christ. Driving home that night, he threatened to murder his DS, blamed me for the position he was in, and said he would commit suicide after he "took care" of the people who had hurt him. By that Friday morning, I was unable to sleep more than a few moments at a time because the tension was so great, even though it had been months since I'd had more than five hours of sleep at a time. During one of those short naps, I dreamed that I was walking into a funeral parlor. It resembled the church I had attended as a child, and at the altar was a casket surrounded by yellow roses. I knew my grandmother was there though I couldn't yet see her; I could feel her presence both physically in the casket and spiritually around me, where I stood. Beneath this was a layer of awareness of the dream state, the fact that I was lying in bed in a darkened room with a man I feared - I felt her presence there, too; a tingling warmth that at once saw, comprehended, and still forgave all the wrong decisions I had made that had led me to this place. In my dream I approached the altar and a red light in the ceiling cast a rosy glow onto her body; her skin looked healthy and warm. On her forehead, filled with red light, were the words God is real. Though she was dead in my dream, I could feel her spirit standing with me, imparting to me everything those three words meant and all their implications for my future. God is real. God is Real.

I woke up with my faith restored, like an ember glowing in the darkness. I knew that I had to end the relationship I was in and I had to seek and offer forgiveness where I had hurt others, and where I had been hurt. That day was one of the worst I have lived through - and anyone who's read this blog knows I've lived through some dark days. But the light was there, sustaining me, giving me the strength to end the relationship even though he hit me, hurt me, threatened to wreck his car and kill both of us, and then later, tried to overdose and kill himself. The light was there, showing me the path out of that hellish place, though he cried and begged and pleaded with me not to leave him, and even though my mouth was bloody and my shoulder was bruised from his fists, it was still hard to go. The light was there, steeling my resolve during the weeks afterward when he put himself into a suicide-watch program and finally sought treatment for his mental disorders and continued to try to talk me into coming back - I stayed strong because the light that had been kindled in me as a child but had burned to ashes, that same light that my grandmother had coaxed and nurtured, the light that had rekindled upon her final visitation to me - the light was there. The light was all the proof I needed that God is real.

This year, as I watched A Christmas Carol and saw Scrooge's ghostly visitors, I was reminded of that spiritual visitation I had received, the redemption and restoration I experienced because of the deep love that my grandmother had for me. Was she really there? Honestly, it doesn't matter. What matters is the truth she worked so hard to make sure I learned - that God is real. Because of her I was reminded of that truth in all the most vital ways, and I received the strength I needed and could not seek for myself. That visitation was my ghost-of-Christmas moment and it led me out of the darkness and into a brighter place. Heaven and the Christmas-time be praised for it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Reconciliation - Redemption - Peace

December is here with all the stress of the approaching holiday. All through the year I think of December and reassure myself there's plenty of time to deal with all the extra work and concerns it brings. But now it is too late in the season to deny the reality of Christmas. Not that I really want to deny it - I love Christmas. There is a warmth and coziness in this season that no other time of year brings. Part of it is the warm-fuzzy of the holiday, part is the cold weather keeping us indoors and in each other's company, part is the long tradition of deep, nurturing love that my mother put into Christmas when I was a child - we might have lacked money, but there was no shortage of joy during the holidays. I have continued that tradition as an adult. I don't rely on the gifts for our Christmas happiness (though I do give and receive some presents) but on the meaning of Christmas itself with its bright flame of pure love, modeled in God becoming flesh in Jesus' birth and beginning to walk the path that would bring humanity to the realization that God is not far away, but is imminent: Emmanuel. God-with-us.

But even with all those wonderful, joy-inducing things, I guess I should confess that I have had a deep dread of the holiday since my divorce. There are so many memories wrapped up in Christmas as a family: putting up the tree with my ex-husband, buying a keepsake ornament each year (these are the ornaments it hurts me to hang up now), the tradition of listening to Christmas music as we decorated, the obligatory silly photo of the dog with a Santa hat on...these are memories that make me smile with tears in my eyes. But those memories aren't an accurate portrayal. The reality is that my ex thoroughly disliked Christmas. His job required him to decorate a huge space and put up half a dozen trees; by the time we got around to decorating the house he was exhausted and the very sight of an ornament made him angry. His participation in our family preparations was forced and it put both of us on edge. And of course there is the fact that he's an unbeliever and so Christmas felt like a slap in the face to him. We would find ourselves at odds over the secularism of the holiday and its religious connotations, and after a while those disagreements bled over into our everyday lives until the tension became unbearable. No one saw that, though. They only saw the decorated house, the happy kids, the smiling parents, the Christmas cookies and the gifts and the glowing lights.

I have been thinking about that a lot this year. On the surface everything about our lives together seemed ideal, but underneath - where currents run deepest and strongest - everything was wrong. I have spent a lot of time berating myself for ending my 18-year marriage and causing so much pain and readjustment for my former husband, myself, and for our two daughters. But for the past six months I have also begun to acknowledge what I could not see before - that the foundation of our union was weak, that we made a lifetime commitment when we were both too young to really understand the concept, that deep friendship is not enough to build your conjugal relationship on, and that there are some things I just can't fix.

Oh...I wonder if anyone knows how much it cost me to write those last six words? Or ultimately, how freeing it is to finally acknowledge? It is hard to say "I couldn't fix my marriage" because it means I'm not perfect. It means that if I ever enter into another commitment of that type, I may not be able to fix or make it work either. But it is also freeing to admit because then the responsibility for my marriage's demise is an equal burden between me and my former husband, and not one that I need to carry on my own. Or maybe...maybe my thinking there is wrong. What if there is no burden to share? What if I look at it in a whole new way? Then...

Our ending is just something that happened as the natural extension of two very different people finally maturing enough to express what they really wanted from a relationship, and discovering together that they couldn't find it with each other after all. Having the strength to admit that - to cut our losses and move on - was an act of courage rather than cowardice. Our relationship now is based on mutual kindness and forgiveness, and it is a thing of grace, peace, and redemptive power that our marriage should have achieved but could not.

I think this changes everything. It relieves the guilt and regret I've been carrying for so long. It acknowledges the personal power of choice that we both exercised - me when I left, and him when he decided not to come back into the relationship when we re-examined that possibility. It honors the inner authority and truth that I ignored for so long - that truth which told me there had to be more to love than just tolerance and silence and disengagement. And it quiets the external referencing that has kept me wondering whether I did "the right thing".

It is a grace-filled answer to many questions, and it brings with it reconciliation, redemption, and peace.