“To live by grace means to acknowledge my whole life story, the light side and the dark. In admitting my shadow side I learn who I am and what God’s grace means. As Thomas Merton put it, ‘A saint is not someone who is good but who experiences the goodness of God.'”
(Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel.)
Explaining the events that got me here is like untangling a spider web. Everything is so intricately woven together and sticky that it’s hard to lay the pieces out in a coherent, logical order. I’m still untangling and making sense of it.
But many of the pieces have fallen into place, much like a Tetris game. When the matching blocks interlock and make a whole layer, they explode and disappear, leaving fewer questions in their wake. As the blocks of my old life align–connecting and explaining the past, present, and future–they are hurled into the ocean by God, never to be seen again.
I love experiencing the goodness of God.
Chapter 1: Romance
“You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace.”
(Song of Solomon 4:9)
I checked my watch for the tenth time in five minutes, worried that the little time I had was going to run out too quickly. The minute hand hadn’t seemed to budge. Relieved, I returned to my book, skimming the pages for pertinent parts, trying to absorb whole paragraphs instead of individual words. I was sitting on the couch facing the fireplace in a Christian bookstore called Northwestern. I had made the trek from my house in southeast Minneapolis over to Roseville for the sole purpose of reading this book—Captivating by John and Staci Eldridge.
A couple months earlier, I had read one chapter of the book at Barnes and Noble located in the same strip mall. That one chapter had brought me so close to tears, I had to close the book, abandon it on an end table, and leave the store. The view of Christ that I went home with that night began to change my life.
I’ve always had a hard time with abstract ideas. I’m a concrete-solid thinker, as my friend Melody would say. I like physics and geometry, formulas I can get my hands on. I hate calculus and the intangible concept of infinity. I’m sure I wouldn’t be very good at logic either. So when I heard a concept like “Christ is everything I ever need,” I couldn’t quite put my mind around it.
“Christ is better than _______.” I knew I should have been able to fill in the blank with the word “everything.” With things like my career, my grades, my looks, and my friends, my mind and heart believed that, indeed, Christ was better than them. I did not have trouble putting those things into the “everything” category.
But when it came to love—that was a different story. “Christ is better than marriage” seemed to be the most preposterous statement I have ever heard. Another way to phrase the same ludicrous idea would have been to say, “I consider marriage a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” In my heart, I knew that that statement should be true for me. I should have been able to it with all honesty and the full support of my entire being.
But I couldn’t.
Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve dreamed of my knight in shining armor–and as a result, I’ve always liked boys. Unlike my female kindergarten counterparts, I never thought boys had cooties. I had my first kiss on the lips in kindergarten, underneath the table below the bulletin boards covered in pre-cut letters and brightly patterned borders. My future classmates held that I kissed another boy by the cubby holes. But I deny that accusation to this day.
In fourth grade, our teacher, Mrs. Robbins, had us make a book of different stories complete with drawings. While other kids told stories about their families and outdoor adventures involving the playground, my stories were a little different. One of my stories went like this: “One day, Jay and Jill went for a walk. They loved each other. When they were two, they kissed and hugged each other. They pretended that they were husband and wife. They took baths together. They slept together. They liked the same foods. They wanted to get married. The end! P.S. They did get married!”
Another story read: “Lisa was in love. She was in love with Jay. Jay hated Lisa. Lisa wanted to marry Jay, but Jay didn’t like her. He thought she was ugly. She was very pretty though. She had long hair. She loved only one boy and that was Jay. She and Jay got married. The end!”
More than being laughable stories from a child’s creative imagination, those stories show that I was born with an innate desire for companionship and marriage.
I always had a crush. After my kindergarten escapades, I held a boy’s hand in first grade. The boy I liked was a short, smart boy with short, blonde hair. We were both incessantly teased for holding hands by everyone else in our class who was still passing through the “cootie” stage of life.
Later on in my elementary school career, I liked a tall, awkward-looking boy. I went to his house for his birthday party, where we played outside in the backyard and then made tambourines in his kitchen by stapling together two paper plates and filling them with dried corn and birdseed. He also came over to my house once and we lie down on the top bunk of my bunk bed. My mom came and told us to get down.
During the humid Minnesota summers, I was constantly daydreaming about the boy of my dreams. I passed the three hours it took to mow our lawn on a riding lawnmower by talking to myself, imagining that I was talking to him. I watched movies and pretended that he was there holding me. I kissed pillows and saved one side of my twin-sized bed for imaginary Romeo, bound to arrive any second. I slept with my huge bunny rabbit, pretending that he was a real person, and trying not to notice that he was only as big as my torso.
And of course, my Romeo always knew exactly what I desired. When I was bored with watching TV, he showed up at my doorstep, wanting to go on an outdoor adventure with me for the rest of the day. When I was sick and lying on the couch, he brought me chicken noodle soup and spoke tender words while stroking my forehead.
Naturally, I repaid the favor. Whenever I went to the kitchen for a cookie or a glass of milk, I got him one too. Then I’d look the other way while I ate both cookies or drank both glasses. He never knew the difference.
I had an overwhelming desire to grow up. My head was constantly in the clouds, thinking “Oh, what if…” and wishing that I had a boyfriend, someone to share things with.
Offering that desire up to the Lord, then, was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. It was a portion of myself that seemed so crucial to my identity and being. But I couldn’t escape the Truth: Christ is better than love.
Walking out of Barnes and Noble after reading Captivating that first night, my concept of love had been revolutionized. I realized that all the images and sayings of romantic love that always made me wistful applied to my relationship with the Lord. He is my soul-mate, the One who I can’t live without. He is my reason for breathing and He gives my life meaning; He completes me. But more than that, He desires intimacy with me. He knows how to love me perfectly, in every way that I desire to be loved. He creates warm summer nights filled with the sound of crickets and big, fluffy, white clouds just for me—because He knows how much I love them.
God is the Ultimate Romancer.
How had I missed it? The one thing that I desired most I hadn’t dared include in the “everything”category. “Surely Christ can’t fulfill my longing for passionate, romantic love. That’s just not His deal,” I thought. So instead of trusting my heart to Christ, I clung to my desire for marriage, hoped in it, longed for it. All the while, the epitome of romantic love was being offered to me.
The night I sat reading Captivating in Northwestern bookstore, I had needed reassurance of God’s passionate, romantic love for me. Going to a book for such a thing had been a typical occurrence for me. A problem-solver at heart, I was always looking for the answers to my problems. I wanted to fix things and not wait for help. When I felt a certain emotion, I wanted to know why. And if I wanted to feel something else, I wanted to know how to get there.
The answer I was seeking in that book was to the question of why I was so attached to marriage, why my heart was always wrenched with a physically numbing pain each time my then-boyfriend, Travis, and I talked about our future. I wanted to give up my life to the Lord. But I couldn’t. I prayed and read my Bible. But my heart still raced with fear. I wanted answers.
I read the first half of the book quickly, skimming until I came across a part that I thought might contain the answer, the thing to help me sort through the jumbled mess in my head. My eyes stopped when I read the following description of myself:
“Fallen Eve controls her relationships. She refuses to be vulnerable. And if she cannot secure her relationships, then she kills her heart’s longing for intimacy so that she will be safe and in control. She becomes a woman ‘who doesn’t need anyone—especially a man.’ How this plays out over the course of her life and how the wounds of her childhood shape her heart’s convictions are often a complex story, one worth knowing. But beneath it all, behind it all, is a simple truth: women dominate and control because they fear their vulnerability. Far from God and far from Eden, it seems a perfectly reasonable way to live. But consider also this: ‘Whatever is not from faith is sin.’ That self-protective way of relating to others has nothing to do with real loving, and nothing to do with deeply trusting God. It is our gut-level response to a dangerous world.”
The world “vulnerability” stood out from the rest and raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I felt vulnerable just thinking about vulnerability. And I knew at that instant that I had stumbled upon the answer: fear.
I was terrified of exposing my heart to the thrills and dangers of love. If I let myself love Travis deeply and we didn’t end up getting married, I was setting myself up for a broken heart. And I had promised myself that I would never put myself in that position, never feel that pain again. I never wanted the man I loved the most on earth to abandon me and leave me shivering in the chilling winds of loneliness and despair.
So I wanted my relationship with Travis to be certain. If it wasn’t certain, I wanted out.
At least, Fallen Eve wanted out.
Chapter Two: Fear
“Love always move to sacrifice, which is exactly where He calls us to go. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that to follow Christ is to abandon the luxury of safety and security. If we are to be like Him, we must always risk for love.”
–Erwin Raphael McManus
The wrenching feeling started on a beautiful, clear Sunday in October en route to a Christmas tree farm in Wisconsin.
Travis and I were in my car. My parents; younger brother, Chris; and his girlfriend, Meg, were driving somewhere behind us. We weren’t buying our Christmas tree yet though. We were going to the fall festival—the farm had a corn maze, pumpkin launcher, and a haunted forest trail. Visitors could also take hay rides and pet the billy goats and bunny rabbits. It was our 2-year-old tradition.
My older brother, Brian, had worked at the tree farm three years earlier during the winter season, cutting down tress, shaking off the loose needles with a big machine, and then loading them onto a truck. Other days, he worked at the front gate, handing out brochures and directing customers. As you can imagine, however, a Christmas tree farm in Wisconsin gets pretty cold in the winter. That was the only year Brian worked there.
As an employee, however, he got a free Christmas tree. My parents liked the tree’s quality so much, the farm became our exclusive Christmas tree provider.
This year, I was bringing my boyfriend along. Even though Travis and I had been dating since the end of April, I had been looking forward to the drive because it meant an hour and a half alone with him. Plus, he had told me the day before that he “wanted to talk” in the car. Naturally, I jumped to conclusions and thought he would want to talk about serious things, like our future and the direction we were heading. I couldn’t wait.
I can’t tell you what I expected him to say exactly. But I can tell you that he didn’t say what I had expected him to.
It wasn’t the first time that had happened.
At the end of the previous summer, nearly every time we hung out, Travis and I took walks on the paved trails down by the riverbanks in Minneapolis. We loved the feeling of the summer air at night, both cool and warm at the same time. Sometimes we got lucky and saw a few stars. Most nights, though, the city sky was an opaque orange-lavender and the wooded trails became a dark shade of grey.
One such night came after a long day of thinking and planning on my part. I had been musing over the idea of it being my last year at the University of Minnesota. I felt like I was supposed to figure out what exactly I wanted to do after graduation. I had researched different possibilities on the Internet. Maybe I would join the Peace Corps. Maybe I would move to Chicago or Colorado Springs, places where there were a lot of writing opportunities. Maybe I would go teach English abroad in some exotic new place, like Ethiopia or North Korea.
Except that now I had a boyfriend who I was falling in love with. I knew that moving after college could be hard and potentially ruin the good thing we had going. Instead of trusting the Lord’s guidance and plan for my life, I tried to devise my own. ‘If I were smart about my future,’ I thought, ‘I would begin planning sooner than later.’
So I talked to Travis. To effectively plan, I needed to know whether I should include him in my future or not. Deep down, I knew that the question I was asking was one of those typically premature ones that females love to ask. So instead of asking him straightforward, I tried to get the answer by beating around the bush.
“Where do you feel like the Lord is leading you?” I asked, acting like it was a random question and not one I had been dwelling on all day.
“To be honest, I don’t know yet. I really enjoy my major and I feel passionate about doing missions or working in a third-world country with the ground water and drinking water system,” Travis said. He wasn’t giving me the answer I wanted to hear. So I tried a different approach.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to do after college. And it’s been hard to decide what to do because I also feel called to the mission field.” I paused slightly as though I were thinking, hoping the coincidence would click in his mind. “But I also don’t want to leave Minnesota and all my friends…” and you, I added mentally.
“Yeah, that’s hard.” He still didn’t get the hint.
I was frustrated from trying to ask a question that I was too embarrassed to ask and from Travis not getting it.
The problem was that the Lord’s will and the existence of Travis weren’t united in my mind. They were two separate things—as thought God had only constructed His will for my life around the circumstance of my singleness. Now that my singleness was (hopefully) being called into question, I assumed God had to revert to Plan B, which had been adjusted for marriage. Marriage had so long seemed like my desire and not the Lord’s. I wanted to get married—He was indifferent.
Ultimately, I didn’t really want to know the Lord’s will for my life—I wanted to know whether or not Travis and I were going to end up together.
I tried a more direct approach. “And I really don’t want to base my future upon a relationship with a boy, especially when that future is uncertain.”
“Well, you know, you’ll have to decide yourself what to do. I’m not in the same place as you are,” he told me. “You have to choose what to do after this year but I have a whole other year. I don’t know what I’ll do in the future yet.”
I was perplexed and extremely disappointed. Where were the reassuring words? When was he going to say that he’d been thinking a lot about us and knew he wanted us to have a future? How was I supposed to plan for my future if I didn’t know where we stood?
As we continued walking, the tension grew between us. I wanted answers but Travis wasn’t coming through—because he didn’t have any answers to come through with. Travis was a man of deep conviction and he wouldn’t say anything unless he was absolutely certain of its truth. We suspended our walk and sat on the long staircase that winded down from Coffman Union to the riverbanks, not talking.
“What did you expect me to say?” Travis finally asked me.
I mentally searched for a response. What had I expected? Nothing offered itself. “Honestly, I don’t know what I expected you to say,” I replied. “But I didn’t expect you to say what you said.”
We sat there in silence and I looked at the indirect lights that illuminated the staircase. Our conversation hung in the air, limp and weak, supported by no reasons and no responses. Silently, we resumed our walk up the steep hill in front of the medical center.
I was angry, angry that I was left with uncertainty, angry that Travis didn’t reassure me, angry that I had made an idiot of myself. Travis put his arm around me in consolation. But I couldn’t stand being by him at that moment—I needed my space. I wanted to fling his arm off my shoulder and shove him away from me. I wanted to scream and yell, “If you’re not sure, then we’re through!” But I stomached my anger. I let him walk with his arm around me, my body stiff and rigid, pretending I was okay.
As we were walking down the block in front of the dorms, though, I finally couldn’t take it any longer. I shrugged him arm off me and crossed to the other side of the street. He was confused and frustrated as he followed me across the street. I had expected and almost hoped that he would walk off in a huff. But he didn’t.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this. And I don’t know why, but I’m still going to walk you home,” he said as he caught up with me.
His voice and his chivalry crumbled my cold exterior and I hooked my arm around his. He stiffened at the contact but then relaxed.
“I’m sorry, Travis. I don’t know why I acted like that. I just didn’t want to be next to you and I don’t know why. I’m sorry,” I apologized, stumbling back into my high school role.
We talked through what had happened and he forgave me.
The future remained opaque.
The October day in my car was a replica of that summer night: I still didn’t know what I wanted him to say. I couldn’t put into words the thoughts and feelings that I wanted Travis to have but I knew how they would make my heart feel: lightly elated and desperately hopeful.
Instead, what Travis said in the car made my lungs contract as my heart panicked.
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my past relationships, mostly my one with Melissa,” he started. My heart wrenched and my breaths collapsed into short, silent gasps. It wasn’t the mention of Melissa but the other things he might say—the things coming up—that terrified me.
I waited for the dreaded words, “I’ve been thinking and this relationship isn’t what I need right now.” My mind recognized that the fear was unfounded but my body was ready to go numb at the first sign of a breakup. No matter how much the former tried to convince the latter that there was nothing to be scared of, my body was still thick with fear.
“Our relationship ended up being really physical,” Travis was saying. “And I just feel like I need to deal with those issues before we—you and me—can move forward.”
I rubbed the steering wheel roughly with the tip of my thumb and concentrated on blinking. I felt dizzy, probably from lack of oxygen.
I tried to calm myself but couldn’t.
I could see out of the corner of my eye that Travis was looking over at me. I didn’t look at him. All I could do and all I wanted to do was stare straight ahead, not thinking, not feeling. My mind raced, fuller than usual with endless possibilities of what could happen between us. It didn’t bother me the most that he had a sexual past. It didn’t bother me that he hadn’t dealt with it yet. All I cared about was where we stood. Was he ever going to dump me?
The uncertainty stretched my heart open like silly putty. The only thing that could fill the growing void was God. I reminded myself to live in light of certainty. I reminded myself that God was everything I ever needed. But my heart could only scoff in disbelief.
Travis reached for my hand to reassure me. “If I didn’t want us to move forward, Kathy, I wouldn’t be dealing with these issues now and I wouldn’t be talking about them with you.”
His reassurance made my mind feel better but my body remained stiff and tense.