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.

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