When Dead Things Live Again

heart monitor

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

I probably need the debriefing more than you need the update. Many things were laid to rest last week, but my brother was not one of them. I did say goodbye, but not for forever. The cause of my brother’s coma was reversible—due to toxins that built up in his body as a consequence of liver disease. His ammonia level was higher than his doctor had ever seen in decades of practice. His coma was deeper and longer than the ones that we realistically hope people can wake from, and his was also in the setting of septic shock, massive blood loss from intestinal veins, and acute respiratory failure from a life-threatening infection. We were called to say goodbye.

So we gathered there together—siblings and half-siblings, parents and step-parents, spouses and exes. Of the ten other members of my brother’s immediate family present, I only had three of their phone numbers in my cell phone—my sister and my parents. Of the eleven of us crying around his bed, not one of us knew about his chronic disease before that dreaded phone call. Happy families are all alike—but my family is like no other.

I’ll explain the relationships as well as I can. My father was first married to my brothers’ mother—together they had three sons. After their divorce, my father married a fellow drug addict, and they would literally lock my brothers out of the house to get high. That marriage dissolved quickly, and my father married my mother (who had her own son from a previous marriage)—and together they had me and my sister. Meanwhile, my father’s first wife remarried (and later divorced) a man who was a good father to her sons. For whatever reason, my dad had a significant share of the custody of his sons, despite his history of addiction. They were with us often when I was younger, and we were often unsupervised—the youngest is ten years older than I am.

My brothers knew pain that I did not know, and it affected them; thus, it affected me. They were hurt deeply, and then they hurt me—one more than the other two. What must have happened to them that they would hate their father’s daughter? What evil had the youngest known that he would cause me harm and call it love? What was wrong with me if I preferred the pain to the silence? Not one of them came to my wedding or even RSVP’d with regrets. Not one of them called to congratulate me when I gave birth to their first niece. Not one birthday phone call or one “I love you” from any of these three—my whole life long. I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve seen them in the past eighteen years, and I’ve been trying to replace them the entire time. Yet here we were all together in a room with our father—and our mothers, and their ex-step-father. Their wives were there, too. My brother who was facing death had recently divorced—so his ex-wife joined us as well. They never had children. Halves, steps, and exes—unhappy in our own way.

But all unhappy together, for the first time ever.

When we arrived at our hotel on the west coast, it was too early to check in. We sat with our bags at a table, waiting for the youngest of my dad’s sons to arrive with his mother. They had been at my ill brother’s hotel trying to gather his belongings and trace his steps leading up to hospitalization. They were a block and a half away, but they struggled to navigate the unfamiliar city. What should have been a five-minute journey to us took more than an hour, despite texted locations and dropped pins and exasperated phone calls. When my brother and my dad’s first wife finally arrived, it was easy to see why. They were broken, with red faces and swollen eyes—even walking was too much to ask. I was moved by their vulnerability, and it seemed natural to embrace a brother who betrayed my trust many years ago and the woman my father was once married to. That day, we were all the same.

We discussed what we knew so far. My brother had flown to this city two days before on business and checked into the hospital, short of breath but stable. The next morning, he was found in his room in a coma and struggling to breathe—and he was emergently intubated. He had stayed at this hospital prior to his divorce and given his wife’s number as an emergency contact—so the hospital called her when they found him obtunded, and she called the family. The youngest of my dad’s three sons and their mother arrived first and went straight to the hospital. In my brother’s belongings bag, they found a hotel key and went straight to the hotel to find answers about what events led up to my brother’s decline in health. They went to the front desk and gave my brother’s name, asking if the receptionists knew anything. They were met with shocked expressions—“That guest checked in at this desk, then disappeared two days ago while we delivered his bags to his room at his request. He left his wallet on the lobby floor, and an Uber driver returned his phone hours later. We’ve been worried about him ever since. He looked terribly ill.”

The hospital had given us more details—he had been hospitalized there before and was told he had a cirrhotic liver four months before. He had actually quit drinking nine months before on his own, worried about the fact that he couldn’t write without a drink and refusing to be dependent on anything other than his own genius. But the damage had been done. He would need a new liver, and until he got it, he would have to deal with the complications of the one he destroyed.

We had some answers as we sat around a table, a most unlikely family—but we had many more questions. Does he have a living will? Life insurance? Health insurance? Who has his dog? When are his bills due? Should we call his employer?

Other questions were specifically for me. J, is this survivable? What will he be like if he wakes up? Can a bad liver really cause a coma? Potentially, I don’t know, and Yes. My answers were worthless, but they were enough for my brother’s mother. “J, will you be medical power of attorney? He didn’t name anyone, and I don’t trust myself to know what to do.” I wanted to argue since she was his mother, but I knew it made sense. Although I couldn’t officially hold “Medical Power of Attorney” without my brother having named me prior to becoming incapacitated, I could make medical decisions on his behalf if his parents delegated that responsibility to me. My brother’s providers could be more efficient if they communicated with me, allowing me to interpret their findings and decisions in words my family could understand. “Yes,” I finally answered. I hoped that if the time came for compassionate withdrawal of life support, I could help her understand and agree to it.

I did not wish to advertise my medical knowledge. I know how threatened a medical team can feel here in Texas when the sibling from California suddenly flies in to run things. We literally joke about that at our hospital—“the sibling from California.” And here I was in California—the sibling from Texas who flew in as medical decision-maker. At least they don’t have to know that I’m in the medical field and wonder if I’m there to suggest better ways to do things. My subtlety lasted five seconds. “Who’s our medical decision-maker?” the neurologist asked when we arrived at the hospital room. “I am,” I said. “I’m his sister.” “She’s a doctor,” added my brother’s mother.

Cover blown.

“I’m a fourth year medical student,” I clarified. “How is my brother?” He took me into the room alone, and I was glad we had caught him while he was there. “I can spin this in a hopeful way—because we can always find reason to hope—or I can spin this in a realistic way. Which do you prefer?” “I want your expert opinion,” I said—understanding the implication that the realistic interpretation was hopeless. “You’re speaking more like a medical student than a sister,” he answered. I shrugged. I hadn’t ever been much of a sister. He examined my brother and then explained his condition in many words, likely dumbed down to a fourth year medical student’s level. I understood every one of them, but one sentence stood out. “I don’t think he’ll ever wake up.” He elaborated, “In fact, with this requirement of pressor support, I’m not sure he’ll make it until the rest of the family can arrive to discuss withdrawing care. If anyone wants to see him alive, they need to get here today.”

I was honest with the family about what the doctor had said, and I made a phone call to another brother I hadn’t spoken to since my childhood. Suddenly everyone was willing to pick up the phone. We spoke for thirty minutes, and he booked his flight, understanding the seriousness of his brother’s condition. When I returned to the room, my dad and his ex-wife were collapsed into chairs that had been pulled up to the bedside. My dad looked pale and sat quietly. My brothers’ mother looked frantic, and she rocked back and forth saying “I don’t know what to do” over and over again. These hours were the worst, and I spent most of them answering questions. What are pressors? What is anoxic brain injury? What does it mean to have high ammonia levels? I was thankful for the distraction.

Late in the day, another doctor came in with a different perspective. She wasn’t certain that my brother had gone long enough without oxygen to his brain to cause such a profound coma. She had never seen an ammonia level this high, but she had seen plenty of patients with liver disease wake from comas this deep once the toxins were removed from the body with medication. She wanted to give him more time before she lost hope. “I think this is reversible,” she offered, “so don’t give up yet.”

Hours and days passed. I kept the extended family updated via text message. I translated the doctors’ and nurses’ reports to the immediate family in the hospital room and waiting room several times each day. I asked questions of the doctors that no one in the family knew to ask. My purpose was not to interfere with my brother’s excellent medical care, but to explain his condition and the care he received to the people who loved him the most. The pathology behind his condition was complicated and multifactorial, and I would have been completely lost four years ago. My brother had never given me the opportunity to love him. He had never needed anything from me, until now. I felt useful as I served his family. My family. Our family.

The ammonia level eventually dropped. After over 48 hours of deep coma without any medically-induced sedation, my brother began moving enough to require sedatives so that he wouldn’t remove his breathing tube. In brief intervals of less sedation, he would sometimes even respond to commands. He opened his eyes; he squeezed my hand. We were hopeful. After 72 hours, his critical care doctor told me that she wanted to try to wake him up the following day and do a trial to see how he could do on his own if his ventilator settings were reduced to allow him to do the work of breathing. I couldn’t believe it—I had come to say goodbye, and to consent to removal of that ventilator support so my brother could die. Now they were talking about removing it so he could breathe on his own.

Later that afternoon, I was told that my brother was being transferred to a more specialized facility with a liver transplant center as soon as a bed became available. I asked if extubation (removing the breathing tube) would still be a possibility before transfer, and the nurse told me that it wouldn’t. “Your doctor is crazy—he won’t survive that,” he said. The afternoon and evening were also complicated by a GI bleed with an unidentifiable source, and I understood the reality that my brother could decompensate at any moment.

I decided to stay the night at the hospital in case the transfer happened in the middle of the night. I wanted to be there to offer any missing information at the new facility and meet the team. The rest of the family left at around 5:30 to get food and rest. At 8 pm, the food I had ordered arrived, and I ate it in the cafeteria while I called my husband. At just before nine, my youngest brother texted me to let me know that he and my other brother and their wives and mother were coming to say goodnight to my older brother. He wanted to see if I needed anything for my night at the hospital. I told him I was fine and that I would let him know if we were transferred overnight. Before they left the hospital, my brothers found me in the cafeteria. “You look tired,” the youngest said as he knelt in front of me and took my hand. “I love you so much. You’ve been amazing, and I don’t know what we’d do without you. Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked.

It would have been too much for me even at my peak of energy and health and rest. But that night I was too tired, too afraid, too vulnerable—I couldn’t hold myself together. “That’s all I need,” I said. “Just love me.” And I cried in my brother’s arms for the first time ever. His wife embraced me next, followed by my other brother. “I love you, little sister,” he said for the first time, “and I’m so glad you’re here.” More embraces and words of gratitude and love came from his wife and my brothers’ mother, and I laughed after they left about the fact that I had just told my dad’s ex-wife that I loved her—and meant it. This tragedy had brought my family together over shared grief, shared hope, shared fear, shared meals, and shared spaces. My first real experience of my brothers’ love gave me energy for a long night ahead.

It was indeed a long night. A bed opened up at the more specialized facility, so my brother had a room. “A bed opened up” is a euphemism for “Someone died,” and that harsh reality was never out of my mind throughout the transfer. I was glad I had stayed despite my parents’ insistence that I sleep and let the transfer happen without me if it was going to happen at all—it involved a great deal of paperwork, and the nurses told me they would have called me in anyway if I hadn’t been there. I signed my brother out at a little after 1 am and took an Uber to the hospital, hoping to beat the ambulance there.

I did beat the ambulance there by more than an hour, and I ended up making small talk with a bipolar woman in a manic episode—the only other person in the lobby at that hour. Anything to keep me awake. She didn’t seem to need sleep, and after she wandered around the lobby taking deep breaths and commenting about the oxygen level at various parts of the large room, I began to wonder if she was a locked unit escapee. My heart went out to her—she was broken and didn’t even know it…like so many of us.

Two hours after my arrival, I was able to see my brother. Nurses were asking for a medical history I couldn’t provide—he had lied about his health, and I knew very little. I did provide our family history and the course of his stay at the facility we came from. I did confirm that he had not traveled to West Africa in the past three weeks or had contact with anyone suspected or confirmed to have Ebola. They checked his hemoglobin, which showed that his bleeding had not progressed, and they told me to be back by 9:00 am to see the hepatologist. I crawled into bed at 4:15 after a text message to the family giving the details of our new location and telling them that I would be at the hospital by 9:00.

When I arrived the next morning, the hepatologist wasn’t there, but a respiratory therapist was. They disagreed with the nurse from the other hospital and were planning to attempt to remove my brother’s breathing tube. “We’ve been weaning his sedation and we’re starting a breathing trial, but no response yet,” she said, and then asked, “Who are you?” As I introduced myself to his nurse, my brother’s eyes flew open. He looked terrified, as if he knew that my presence meant that something had gone terribly wrong. I asked if he could hear me, and he nodded. I asked if he knew where he was, and he shook his head. I asked if he remembered getting on a plane on Monday, and he shook his head. I asked if he remembered planning a trip for work, and he nodded. We had a starting point, and from there I walked him through the events as we had pieced them together from the time he got off the plane until that moment, pausing often to check for his understanding. He was still intubated and unable to speak, but his face spoke volumes. I had never seen my brother cry before, but he cried that day. “Are you overwhelmed?” I asked. He nodded. “Do you want me to stop talking?” He shook his head. “Do you want to know more about what made you sick?” He nodded. I told him everything, in words that he could understand—and I knew that he would not likely remember anything I told him in the shadows of sedation. “We all know about your liver now—you don’t have to hide it anymore. We love you, and we’re going to help you get through this.” He shook his head and cried again. I ran through the list of who was with us in the city—all of the immediate family members except my sister, who had left a few days before, as well as his ex-wife and his best friend. I asked if he wanted to see one of our brothers, and he nodded. I texted him, realizing that no one else in the family downstairs even knew he was awake and breathing well with his ventilator all but turned off. I knew it wasn’t time yet for his mother to see him, but he was closer to his brother than to anyone else, and I wanted him to have that support in the moments to come. My brothers were reunited, with tears mingling on tightly clasped hands. As brothers do, they quickly overcame their tears with humor. “We’re glad to have you back, Mr. President,” my healthy brother said. “The country has been waiting for you.” I played along when I saw my brother’s smile—“Your children would like to see you. Should we bring them in?” His tubed smile broadened at our teasing. He was back.

The respiratory therapist asked us to step out for a moment—they needed to move some equipment around the room in preparation for extubation, and they needed room around the bed to do it. As we walked out of my brother’s room and into the hallway, my other brother pulled me to his chest and sobbed. After what seemed like minutes, he finally said “He smiled, J.”

The respiratory therapist invited us back into the room. “We’re ready to extubate,” she said—“just waiting on the doctor’s orders.” I asked my brother if he wanted his mom to come in, and he shook his head. I didn’t dare ask if he wanted our dad. I moved on and asked if he wanted his best friend, and he nodded. His friend joined us, and the three of us were at bedside in awe of my brother’s smile when the extubation orders came in and a team of nurses filled the room. We stepped out, and the curtain was drawn—a two-inch gap left in the center.

This was the moment we had come for. On Tuesday, we were told that we might soon need to make a decision as a family about when to remove my brother’s breathing tube—so he could die. Just days before, he hadn’t had brainstem reflexes—much less a smile. Extubation was supposed to be the ultimate defeat—and here it was the greatest victory I’ve ever been a part of.

I watched through my gap in the curtain through flooding eyes. I had seen this done too many times to count—and it had never made me weep. Within seconds, the tube was out; he was suctioned; he was cleaned. He was fine. I collapsed into my brother’s arms in the hallway, and he wept too. Our brother was alive and communicating. Our family was alive and communicating.

We were invited back into the room, now cleared except one nurse. My brother’s first words were profound: “That sucked.” His second words shocked me. “Mom and Dad.” Surely not. “Your step-dad?” I asked. He shook his head. “Mom and Dad.” I still couldn’t believe it. “Your mom and our dad?” I specified, not wanting to bring his worst enemy into the room uninvited. He nodded. “Mom and Dad. Have they been good?”

We assured him that they had been perfect, and it wasn’t a lie at all. My dad and his ex-wife had supported each other gracefully during the deepest heartache either of them had ever known. The whole family had. For this week, my brothers had been what brothers should be, and their wives had been like sisters. For this week, my mother had taken it upon herself to serve and uplift her husband’s ex-wife—she could imagine the pain of losing a child, and she sought to lessen that pain for the least likely friend. My mom provided every meal for my brother’s mother, ordered every Uber ride, went on every errand for an incidental forgotten item. My mom even took her shopping for warmer clothes (she had barely packed at all, and what she packed was for Texas summers), kept her phone charged, and gave her a shoulder to cry on whenever she needed it. I have never loved my mother more. My brother’s mother also had the support of her second ex-husband, the step-dad who was deeply involved in my brothers’ lives. It seemed that they forgot they were divorced—they have both remained single for decades, and I caught them kissing one night after dinner. Even my brother’s ex-wife was included as part of the family. We all knew that a painful divorce probably left them with regrets and a need for closure. She knew him better than any of us after eighteen years of marriage—even though she still didn’t really know him. We honored her desire to be present and to have another chance to say goodbye to him after she thought she had lost that chance forever. She was not the ultimate enemy of the family anyway—my dad was. But you never would have guessed it. I watched my brothers seek out my dad time and time again during these dark days. I watched the embraces and confessions of love and the formulation of plans for the future. I watched walls crumble.

So yes, dear brother—they’ve been good. We’ve all been good.

My brother’s mom and our dad came up to see him—my other brother and I stood in the corner, arms linked. I watched my brother cry as he took our dad’s hand. “You look good, Dad,” he said hoarsely. “I love you.” His mom turned to my brother and me, shocked and ecstatic. She has always wanted her boys to have a relationship with their dad, but she told me later she hadn’t thought her son would even ask for his father. I could tell that my dad was overwhelmed—he is rarely a man of few words. “I love you too, son. I know everything, and I love you anyway.” My brother shut his eyes. “I’m a mess. I need you.” “I’m here,” my dad assured him.

He later asked for his step-father and our other brother. Then he needed rest, and he recommended an Italian restaurant for lunch. We went there while he slept, our appetites suddenly returning in full force. When we returned, he awoke and asked for both of my parents. “I haven’t let you be a big part of my past,” he began, “but you’ll be a part of my future.”

He saw his brothers again with their wives, and he finally asked for his ex-wife. When she returned from his bedside, she wore a content and relieved smile. “That went well,” she whispered to me later. “We have closure.”

That night, we had another large family dinner with our family of halves, steps, and exes. Before the margaritas even arrived, my brother nudged me and pointed across the table. My mother and his mother were taking a “selfie” together. Our dad and his step-dad took the cue and leaned in for their own selfie. Two women once married to the same man. Two men once married to the same woman. Friends, bound by their mutual love of one hurting person. One of my brothers popped his head into the camera field behind our dad and his step-dad. Next to my dad, and smiling. My brother kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear, “Did we just get our family back?”

Yes, we did—and that’s the miracle I’m stuck on. My brother was all but dead, and he came back to life. And my family was all but dead—and now it lives, too. Do you remember my sadness in my post about saying goodbye—do you remember the facebook message devoid of the words I longed to hear? All three of these brothers told me they loved me this week. All three made a promise to never walk out of my life again. I have spoken to at least one of them every day since I returned home, and every conversation ends with those precious words. All of my siblings are coming to my parents’ house in a few weekends, just to be a family for two nights. That hasn’t happened since I was too young to remember. Life stirs where I thought it was lost.

And my dormant heart stirs and awakens to life. What heartache have I known? Betrayal by one brother, and rejection by others. The lies of my father. The distance of a God I longed for. All of these…redeemed. I am struggling to find the words I need here. None of you could possibly understand what happened in my heart—it exceeds my talents and vocabulary, as well as your attention span. To put it simply, I found safety and comfort in the arms I once feared, and each of my brothers affirmed their love for me. The lies of my dying brother were no different than the lies of my father—none of us knew what he struggled with. When the truth came out, we all survived. My brother leaned on my dad, knowing that he’s been through shame like this before. I found peace in my prayers and in the prayers others offered, even in the darkest of moments. I felt that God was near and that this tragedy was for his glory and our good.

I know that there are medical explanations for my brother’s recovery. I know that there are psychological and sociological and hormonal explanations for what happened in my family. I know that this story does not need Jesus.

But I know that I do.

Maybe it’s because my personality type is ENFJ. Maybe it’s because this is a coping mechanism for a tragedy. Maybe Jesus is a lie. But my life has been marked by lies, and this feels different. Lies from my brothers, lies from my dad, lies to my family about where I stand in belief. I’ve known so many lies that I struggle to identify truth, and I will never claim with certainty to hold it. But if there’s one thing I do know, it’s this:

Me without Jesus is the greatest lie of all—and I’m finished with it.

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The Pink Circle: Life Lessons from a Hula-Hoop

Hula Hoops

She reached between the cabinet and the wall and pulled out a pink hula-hoop that had been hiding in the space. It was the last thing I had expected to see in my 71-year-old counselor’s office. She set it on the ground in front of me.

“This is your pink circle,” she offered in her gentle manner, gesturing at the toy. “Step in.”

I was 19 at the time, and way too cool for this. I had been seeing a Christian counselor to help me clear away the debris left over from childhood sexual abuse. The memories and the guilt still haunted me, especially as I was considering the possibility of serious romantic relationships developing during the college years. One of my undergraduate majors was psychology (not the field I ended up in), which required me to experience several counseling sessions as a client. I appreciated the ability to take the time to get my life together while earning school credit.

I looked up at the woman on the other side of the hula-hoop, as if waiting for her to laugh and explain herself. She had long, white hair, and her eyes disappeared when she smiled. I had imagined what it would have been like to have her as a grandmother. I decided I wouldn’t have liked it—she knew too much about me, before I even put it into words.

“Step in,” she prodded again. She was all smile and no eyes; I could tell she was enjoying my confusion. I shrugged and stepped to the middle of the circle.

“Now what?” I asked, still slightly annoyed by the exercise and hoping she wasn’t going to make me hula-hoop. She didn’t answer right away. She had this way of intently looking at me after I spoke, with no change in her own expression. It always made me feel like I had to repeat what I had said or say something more. Now I realize that it was part of her analysis. She was reading me—we were both waiting to see what the other would do next. I broke first. “What do you want me to do?”

“Pick it up.” Her amused expression did not change. I complied, certain at this point that this was some “loosening up” exercise and resigned to the fact that I was going to have to start gyrating. Cheerleading and spontaneous dance parties in pajamas on my all-girls hall had made me good at it, but it wasn’t something I was enthusiastic about doing in front of a very modest 71-year-old woman while wearing a sundress.

“This is your pink circle,” she said again as a softness entered her expression. “It has no vertical boundary,” she explained. “Imagine a flexible wall made out of something like plastic wrap that completely surrounds the perimeter of the circle and goes all the way up to heaven—but stays open at the top. Are you with me?”

Oh gosh, this is cheesy. “I’m with you,” I assured her. “I don’t know where we’re going, but I’m with you.”

She looked quite pleased with herself and carried on. “It’s open at the top, and you have full access to God to send him your prayers and receive his love and blessings in your life—no vertical boundary.” I nodded. This wasn’t something I needed an object lesson for—this was what I believed.

“Now let’s talk about the horizontal boundaries.” She stepped back and then walked around me as she spoke. “Studies have shown that humans need at least eighteen inches of what we call “intimate space” on all sides of the body. This is approximately the distance from you to the perimeter of the hula-hoop when you stand in the middle of it. Do you remember our wall made out of plastic wrap?” she paused. I nodded again, beginning to understand the illustration and its importance.

“The flexible wall made out of plastic wrap is special: Once it is formed, it is only flexible from the inside. You can push out the walls—the boundaries of the pink circle—to exclude others. You can also pull in the walls to bring others closer to you if they allow you to. But they cannot move the walls from the outside. No one should ever come closer than the perimeter of this circle without your permission—but your wall was invaded before it had fully formed.”

It was the most she had spoken at one time since I had been seeing her. I knew that she would want to hear my thoughts, and I was dreading my turn to speak. “J, what do you think that early invasion did to your wall?”

I made a silent plea—Please don’t make me channel my inner child again. But I knew I had to cooperate if this was ever going to be over. “I guess it didn’t form correctly…I didn’t even know I had a wall,” I finally replied.

“Exactly,” she affirmed. “So people kept invading it. Sometimes they pushed in, and sometimes you let them in because you didn’t realize that you had a choice. You didn’t know how to work the wall.” Her assessment of me continued and I almost wondered if her insight was a result of professional training and practice or some form of clairvoyance. “The wall isn’t just to establish physical boundaries;” she explained, “it is also the boundary for thoughts and feelings and hopes. You have to take ownership of those within your circle—but not the ones outside of your circle.”

Ah.

“You brought too much into your pink circle,” she continued, “and it wasn’t just physical things. As you grew, you allowed into your pink circle what should have stayed in the pink circles of others—their desires, their expectations, their opinions, and their responses to you. You became consumed with pleasing other people at your own expense. Your focus has been on meeting expectations and generating only positive opinions. You take it personally if someone fails to connect with you or if they happen to disagree with you. You are so deferential that you tear down your own walls.”

Wow. Where was the crystal ball? She nailed it.

“J, it’s time to rebuild them.” Her eyes were full; her face solemn. She stood in front of me, still outside the boundary of the circle.

“But I don’t want to build walls,” I protested. “I love to love people.”

“How do you feel if they don’t love you back?” she challenged.

The pause before my admission allowed my mind to fill with understanding until I finally confessed—“I’m devastated.”

“That’s what I’m talking about!” she exclaimed. “How others respond to you is in their pink circle—not yours. I’m talking about flexible walls—you can adjust the perimeter from the inside to show love to others and bring them in. But if they don’t love you back, that stays in their pink circle. If you do what you believe is right and others are offended, that is in their pink circle. If you speak what you believe is truth and others disagree, that is in their pink circle—do not allow these things in yours.”

“Let’s practice,” she offered. “Let’s say you send someone a text message saying you’d like to have lunch with them sometime and they never respond. What should you tell yourself?”

“It’s not in my pink circle.”

“Great! Let’s say you pass a friend in the hallway and say ‘Hi,’ and your friend doesn’t even look up at you.”

“It’s not in my pink circle.”

“Exactly! Maybe your friends are busy or distracted or have any number of things they’re dealing with inside their own pink circles.” She gave another scenario. “What if you tell your parents someday that you would rather be a musician than a doctor—and they tell you you’ve lost your mind?”

“Umm—I think they would be right.”

She laughed—“Okay, maybe that’s a bad example.” Her eyes disappeared again as her smile grew. “You get the point, though—right? It’s not in your pink circle.”


Almost nine years have passed since that day. What I initially thought was a kitschy exercise has remained with me ever since. I told my husband about it when we were dating, and he has reminded me of it often.

I remembered it when my anorexic roommate hated me for calling her parents after her weight dropped to eighty-five pounds. I walked into our dorm-room one day to find all of her things moved out and my inbox filled with scathing letters from her family and friends. It’s not in my pink circle.

I remembered it on overnight call when a red-faced surgeon screamed for me to get out of his operating room after I tried and failed to retract a six hundred pound patient’s left leg. I was thirty weeks pregnant and motivated to find favor, learn as much as possible, and work hard—but safely. It’s not in my pink circle.

And I remember it now, as I write an honest letter to my family about my position regarding the faith I grew up with—a faith I am leaving. They may be angry. They may make accusations and assumptions. They may hate me—or they could overwhelm me with love and acceptance. Whatever comes, it’s out of my control. My letter is truthful, gentle, and loving. Regardless of their response—it’s not in my pink circle.

I know this sounds a little strange—I get it. I thought it was crazy, too. But I think we could all benefit from being mindful of our pink circles. I used to remind myself of mine with a pink hair-band that I wore on my wrist. I recently upgraded to something more professional—my husband bought me this Kate Spade version of the pink circle (completely without prompting, by the way—he’s fully supportive of the way the pink circle shapes my thinking and does whatever he can to remind me). You’ll find me wearing it in times when the need for the reminder is great—it will be a daily accessory for a while. Your circle doesn’t have to be pink. Maybe you have the sparkly purple hula-hoop or a sleek black one. Maybe you have the child-sized one because you like to let people in close like I do, or maybe you have the jumbo-sized hoop and would prefer for everyone to keep their distance.

Find the circle that works for you. Reach out through flexible walls to welcome others in, or extend the circular border when you need space. Own your thoughts, your feelings, your hopes, and your actions—but no one else’s. Develop the discernment to know when it is time to say, “It’s not in my pink circle”—but maintain an attitude of humility and do not forget that we have much to learn from each other as our circles intersect.

To my friends here—thank you for pulling in your borders and reaching into mine—for allowing me to know you. To new readers or those just passing by—welcome to my pink circle. I find so much joy in overlapping hula-hoops.

[Image credit: © Luckydoor | Dreamstime.com – Hula Hoops Photo]

First

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“What can I do for you? What does it mean for me to put you first and love you more?” Sadly, the question surprised my husband in the last hour of Valentine’s Day. It shouldn’t have—it should be a question he hears every day. Instead, he hears me say things like “My family, my rules” when it comes to our interactions with my parents, who we spent the day with yesterday at my niece’s birthday party.

Don’t talk about natural selection.

Don’t talk about theoretical physics.

Do read these articles my dad sent about the beautiful Alexis Tsipras, so you can speak intelligently to agree with him when he refers to Tsipras as the Antichrist.

They can’t. Find. Out.

How selfish am I? Have I ever written a post that explores how this fear of consequences with my family might affect my husband and my marriage? Have I ever thought about it?

Fear of consequences—is it rational? I think it is. I think my husband agrees. There would be consequences if my family found out that I no longer believe. They would likely blame it on two things: my husband and my education. More the former than the latter. Then they might even try to blame each other. Their response will be to say more and say it louder, even though they have already said enough—for a lifetime, they’ve said enough. They’ll hate the gay people, the Muslims, the Hindus, the atheists, and the black people I call my friends—my mom still uses the N-word from time to time, and rage stirs within me as I firmly correct her. Most of all, they’ll hate my husband—the scientist. They really already do, but it’s usually a silent hatred. They often ignore him when he speaks. If they acknowledge him, it is often with rolled eyes. I’ve confronted my mom before for passive-aggression. “Stop. You have to be nice. He is my husband, and you have to be nice.” It ruined the weekend—but my husband felt loved.

They hate him because his knowledge challenges their lies. They hate him because his curiosity reveals their ignorance—a choice they have made out of stubbornness and laziness. They hate him because his arguments obliterate fallacies and because their flaming arrows cannot penetrate his gentleness.

Oh, they love Jesus.

But they hate the man who looks more like him than anyone I’ve ever known.

“It appears as though the Antichrist has risen to power,” my dad says of Alexis Tsipras.

YOU ARE THE FUCKING ANTICHRIST.

Capital letters because I’m screaming inside. Mistyped words because my hands are trembling. Typing through tears.

No, I didn’t say it out loud. Gentleness and respect. Gentleness and respect. Gentleness. And. Respect.

My husband barely said a word all day. How could he?—most of what he would say isn’t on the “safe-list.” He’s a different man when his flame is smothered—only when we’re around my family. How often is it like this? Probably a weekend every month, a week in the summer, two weeks at Christmas. Manageable, right?

Wrong. Not because he can’t pretend for a brief time. Not because he isn’t willing to make the sacrifice for me. It’s not sustainable—because of what it says about my heart for him. For that weekend, that week, that holiday, I’m loving him second. I’m not okay with that. Not for my parents, not for my kids, not for anyone—not ever. He is first. If loving him first offends someone else…well…let the chips fall where they may.

Where might they fall? I don’t intend to suddenly announce my faith position and then storm out, slamming the door behind me. And I don’t expect that I’ll be thrown out immediately, either. What I anticipate is that I’ll be slowly smoked out. They’ll say more and say it louder. They’ll hate my husband with renewed vigor, and I’ll defend him with rediscovered loyalty. They’ll aggressively try to evangelize my children. Choosing my husband first and children second will require us to keep our distance. None of this is guaranteed. Much of this is likely. All of it is possible.

My husband’s answer to my question was what I thought it would be. He feels so chained around my parents. He would love to have the freedom to be himself, but he will not ask me for anything. He understands my struggle and the likely consequences of telling my family, and he does not want to cause me that kind of pain for his sake.

He won’t ask for it—but he shouldn’t have to.

What does this mean? Is The Day coming? No. I don’t know. It must. Yes. I’m petrified. Who will take me in if I’m rejected? Who will take me in if I reject them for my husband’s sake?

Selfishness again. As much as I want to draw support and have a plan for The Day, if it comes—the only person I need is in a Benadryl-induced coma next to me right now. If my family rejects us, and if all other supports fail, I still have him—the one I’m doing this for. He will always be first, even if that demands a vast reduction in those who follow.

Let the chips fall where they may.

[Image courtesy of Mister GC at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

The Bridge: A Year with Russell & Pascal

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I’m wearing my grandmother’s diamond earrings and a vintage gold ring of my mother-in-law’s that she designed. I’m sitting next to a table that holds a glass container filled with the dried petals from the first flowers my husband ever bought me before we were officially even dating. When did we officially start dating? He told me he wanted to pursue a relationship with me on July 29th, 2006, in the wave pool at a water park. We had met on June 25th at church. Our first kiss was August 13th. He proposed on June 4th, 2008, and we married on January 3rd, 2009 (pronounced husband and wife at 7:28 pm, to be exact). He once said we could “upgrade” my ½ carat engagement ring when we had the money. I told him I never want to—I want to always have the same ring on my finger that he held in his hand when he proposed. He paid cash for it, and it represents where we were at that time in our lives. It’s perfect for my tiny hands, and I’ll wear it for the rest of my life.

As you can see, I’m sentimental. I carry things with me—tokens of remembrance from loved ones who are gone, mementoes of my romance with my husband, important dates forever sealed in my memory. Today is a significant day.

Friday the 13th—am I superstitious? Of course not. Last year, February 13th was a Thursday. Thursday, February 13th, 2014—the day Pascal made his first post at Russell & Pascal. It was a short post. Three paragraphs. Four likes. One pingback from another blog. What’s the big deal? Why do I add the day of his first post to a running list of anniversaries?

Russell & Pascal. Pseudonyms to protect my family’s identity from my parents. I’m married to Russell, the atheist. I introduced Russell to Pascal, my former professor and a professional in a field I hope to someday call my own, on January 5th, 2013. I knew of Pascal’s faith and had reached out to him with a long letter a little over a month before, hoping he could walk with us through doubt and help us find reasons to believe again. Pascal had responded with his own long letter, and our letters continued into the spring. After Russell and Pascal met for the first time in January, they started having frequent breakfasts and became fast friends. Pascal’s story and his confident reassurance gave me hope that I could believe again. He engaged and accepted my husband in a way that no other believer has. The later spring and summer of 2014 were months of silence between our families as other priorities took precedence—but the fall months found Russell and Pascal together again over early morning breakfasts. An atheist and a Christ-follower, loving each other over breakfast burritos and migas at 6 am—the blog was born over the shared table that bridged the distance between them.

With the blog came an unspoken commitment. Russell and Pascal could have stopped having breakfast at any time, and no one would have noticed. The blog was a product of their friendship that symbolized their intent to take it deeper and make it last. The blog was Russell’s way of saying “I’m willing to talk”—for so long, he hadn’t wanted to out of fear of damaging a believer’s faith. It was Pascal’s way of saying “I’m standing by you, no matter what.” It was their way of inviting me, inviting you, to the table—to the bridge.

With his very first post on February 13th, 2014, Pascal reached out a hand to the skeptic. Together a Christ-follower and an atheist erected a public bridge over a chasm where bridges have been burned time and time again. Post by post, the bridge has been reinforced, and hundreds of people have explored it. What does “gentleness and respect” mean? No matches allowed. One year later, the bridge still stands.

That bridge means the world to me. I’m somewhere between overwhelming doubt and sure and sufficient reasons to believe, but I’m in a safe place. I’m not grasping wildly at something to hold onto. I’m not stuck in a swamp. My feet are planted alongside others who have joined me on the journey…all because two people built a bridge. They opened it to you and me a year ago today.

Go back with me another year—February 13th, 2013. I was following the reading plan in my journaling Bible (a gift from Pascal). The assigned reading for the day included Psalm 40. I read the first verses of the Psalm and wrote in the margin “Could these words be for me?” These were the words I wanted to claim on that day:

“1 I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry. 2 He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. 3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.”

To be drawn up out of a pit—for my steps to be made secure. That was my sincere prayer on February 13th, 2013. On February 13th, 2014, a bridge was built. It stands today, February 13th, 2015, and I have hope that it is somehow an answer to my question—Could these words be for me? I may not have sure and sufficient reasons, but I can be sure-footed on the bridge—not stuck in a miry bog. I don’t like where I came from and I’m not sure where I’m going—but wherever I am between the two, I am held up. I am supported. I am not alone.

Pascal, my dear brother—thank you for writing your very first post about your call to the skeptic one year ago today. Russell, my beloved husband—thank you for writing him back, again and again and again. I love you both deeply, and I congratulate you on one year of writing here. I eagerly look forward to the start of a new year of gentle and respectful conversation on the bridge that will never burn.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain]

For Days of Auld Lang Syne: On Loving Russell

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I walked into a room in the church basement where my parents had first met more than two decades before. I was trying a new Sunday school class designed for single adults between the ages of 18 and 22. I was 19. The first person to greet me was an abnormally tall man we’ll call R. R offered me a firm handshake and then introduced me to some of the other women in the class. I was polite in conversation and appreciated their warm welcome, but I couldn’t stop thinking about R. My hand tingled and burned from its earlier contact with his, and that’s not a physical response I was accustomed to having after a handshake. I had met more handsome men. I had met men who were charming and complimentary and even flirtatious—R had quickly passed me off to the females. I wasn’t looking for love—especially not here. I was taking the maximum load of hours allowed in a semester at my university the next fall, and I struggled enough with taking tests that I didn’t plan to allow for romantic distractions. But my attraction to R did not ask my permission before demanding my undivided attention. I have no idea what the lesson was about that day, and the only name I remember is his.

At the end of the lesson that I do not recall, the director of the class announced that there was a social gathering planned for after church at a local restaurant. She asked for a head count to reserve a table, and I casually glanced around to see if R’s hand was raised before I responded. It was, so I raised mine too. I realized how ridiculous my behavior was. Why was I so drawn to this man?

Two hours later, I arrived at the restaurant. A few of the women I had met earlier were already seated at the table. I took a seat in the middle with one of them to the left of me, two empty seats to my right, and four empty seats across the table. The empty chairs began to fill, but the two seats to my right remained available. Finally, R walked in with a friend. He pulled out the far seat and offered it to his companion; then R sat next to me. I quickly realized that R’s friend was intellectually disabled, and that R had driven him to the restaurant and was buying his meal. So far, he was perfect. We conversed the entire meal. I mostly just listened to him, hanging on every word. I learned that he was single and 27 years old—8 years older than I was. He spoke about his educational and career goals. He also shared with me his personal goals—his ambitions for spiritual growth and character development and his plans for how to achieve them. He was well-spoken (although quite long-winded) and intelligent. He was gentle and sincere. He was ambitious, yet selfless. The clincher for me was when he mentioned that he had acquired a massage therapy license so he would be skilled in massaging his future wife. I think I literally started perspiring. I had to be the woman those hands were made for.

I called my mom from the parking lot as I left the restaurant. “I just met the man I’m going to marry,” I told her as if I had a ring on my finger. She actually took me seriously—I had never said such a thing before. I had only casually dated and never been in love. “Well, at least give me a couple of years to save up for a wedding,” she said, knowing that I usually finish what I start.

R and I met again at another church-sponsored gathering the following Saturday. I brought my cousins with me to the lake property owned by the church for a day of volleyball and grilled hot dogs. My cousins knew about our impending marriage, because I had told them about R on the way. R did not know about it. When I arrived with my cousins, R had his shirt off and was playing sand volleyball. Damn. I had subconsciously labeled him as “average” on a physical attractiveness scale when I met him—and his height made him look so thin in clothes. I’m not sure if it was the well-built body I discovered underneath his shirt or the fact that I had become enamored with him at lunch the week before that gave me heart palpitations when I saw him, but…damn.

R and I spoke for a while at the event, and he spent quite a bit of time talking to my male cousin too. He told me he would be out of the state for the next ten days for his cousin’s wedding clear across the country, and I was disappointed that I wouldn’t see him for the next two Sundays. Before we left, he put his number in my phone and told me to feel free to call him some time. I gave him my number and said, “I don’t call men. You can call me.” I felt so dumb saying that to a 27-year-old man, but it was true. I was still a kid, and it was a rule I had made for myself. I knew that my heart was prone to attachment—I could see myself misinterpreting a friendship and pursuing something more, and I didn’t want to put him in that awkward situation. As soon as we got in the car, my cousin said, “He’s not into you at all. He’s a great guy and I see why you like him, but I don’t want you to get your heart broken.” “I never said he was into me,” I reminded him, “—just that I want to marry him. How he feels about me is completely up to him.” The ball was in his court—if he wanted more than a casual church friendship, he had my number and could initiate it himself.

He didn’t. I didn’t hear from him at all while he was out of the state for his cousin’s wedding. Not even a text message. Even my mom said, “I guess I won’t be paying for a wedding any time soon after all.” I kept my hopes up—surely I would hear from him after the busyness of travel calmed. But ten days passed, then twelve. At the end of thirteen days I decided to just forget about him. He clearly wasn’t interested, and my “I don’t call boys” rule had probably only served to remind him that I was a child, not the object of his romantic affection. C’est la vie.

On day 14 after his departure, the call came. He had been planning to head to a water park with a group of friends, but he had been running errands after his long trip, and his to-do list had taken him into the afternoon. His friends were already at the park, which was 2 hours away. He said he would go if he could find a friend to go with him, and that’s why he was calling me. My heart soared. I couldn’t go, but I was thrilled that he had asked. I explained that my cousins were coming over for spaghetti and board games with me and my sister. “If you end up deciding it’s not worth it to drive two hours to the water park this late in the day, you’re welcome to join us tonight,” I offered. He played a classic card—“It sounds like fun,” he said, “but I’ve had a lot of offers already.” He ran through a list of people who were apparently begging to hang out with him if he chose to stay in town instead of going to the park—but I saw right through it. “OK, well let me know if you change your mind,” I said, knowing he would call back soon. He waited an acceptable amount of time for someone who is pretending that time with established friends is more of a priority than time with a new romantic interest, and then he called back. “Actually, I think I’d rather do board games than hang out with a big group of people tonight. What’s your address?”

He showed up a few hours later on his motorcycle. He met my parents and my sister for the first time, and he already knew my cousins from church. I was completely enthralled with him…but so was my sister. She was only 17 at the time, but she’s the one who got the looks in the family. My parents always introduced her as the pretty one, me as the smart one. The effects last to this day. At my BMI of 21, I’m realizing I’ll never feel thin enough. After two sets of braces, I’ll always critique my own smile. And although I’m the last person to care about physical attractiveness in someone else, I can promise you that surgical enhancement is in my future. I am moderately attractive. My sister is stunningly beautiful—and she knows it. I know that R noticed her beauty and her seductive touch. I kept my distance across the table and watched her hand touch his arm or his thigh at every possible opportunity. I heard the way she laughed at everything he said, and I saw her flirtatious smile every time she caught his eye. Despite that, the evening was fun—he didn’t respond to my sister’s advances. “Maybe we can all go to the water park some time before you go back to school,” he said before he left.

When he had driven off, I walked to my sister’s room and confronted her. It wasn’t catty sibling rivalry—I knew that making accusations would work against me. “I know you didn’t mean anything by it,” I began, “but could you keep a little more distance next time he comes over? I really like this guy, and you’re so much more beautiful than I am that I’m afraid he won’t notice me if you give him too many reasons to notice you.” She didn’t argue with my comparison of our beauty—like I said, she knows it. “Was I flirting?” she asked innocently. “—I had no idea! I definitely don’t want to sabotage anything, so I promise I’ll back off!”

She kept her promise. He came over many times over the next few weeks, and she always gave us time alone. I was also on the worship team with him at church. He played the cello and guitar, and we had weekly practices. Our friendship quickly deepened through these rehearsals, through evenings together, and through phone calls and text messages. One night he called me and asked for advice. An 18-year-old girl in his English class was clearly attracted to him, and he didn’t know how to handle it. He said, “I like her a lot as a friend, but I’m 27. An 18-year-old is way too young for me.” I knew I had to carefully choose my words. If I say that 18 is old enough, he might pick her instead of me. If I agree that 18 is too young, what about 19? Would he not allow our relationship to naturally deepen, fearing my youth? “I think it’s less about age and more about maturity,” I began. “She still lives at home with her parents. I don’t think an eighteen or nineteen year old is necessarily too young for you, but if I were you I wouldn’t date someone who had never lived away from home. At least go for a girl who has moved out of the house and had a year of college.” I’m not very subtle, and he heard my intentions. With my description of myself, I had given him the green light.

Over the coming days he came over more frequently and stayed later. Our conversations deepened, and I realized that he looked more like Jesus than anyone I had ever known. My favorite nights were when he brought his guitar and we worshiped together until the early hours of morning. One night he sat next to me on the couch while we watched a sappy movie—he was always willing to watch them with me, and I loved that about him. He had placed himself closer to me than he usually did, and our arms brushed against each other periodically until they finally came to rest with no space between them. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Is it okay with you that our arms are touching?” I smiled and nodded. “Good,” he continued, “because I kind of like it.”

I know what you’re thinking—it sounds like we’re in 3rd grade on the playground at recess. But I cherished his innocence. Plenty of men had taken so much more from me without asking, and he wanted to make sure I was okay with our arms touching. After the movie he pulled out his guitar and we sang worship songs in harmony and shared scripture with each other until 4 am. When he left that day, he hugged me for the first time, and I felt his lips almost imperceptibly brush against my hair. I get chills just writing about it, because it is one of my favorite affectionate gestures. Touching arms, tight embraces, and sensual kisses between two sets of lips are all mutual. But when a man’s lips rest on a woman’s hair, it says something that these other expressions of affection do not say. It’s an offering that cannot easily be reciprocated. It is love that doesn’t expect anything in return. It says, “You are mine.” I love having my hair played with, and I had said for years to my friends that the way for a man to find my heart is through my hair. When he held me tightly in his arms and kissed the top of my head after 6 hours of worshiping together, I knew that I loved him.

We had our DTR (define-the-relationship…duh) a few weeks later in the wave pool of the same water park he had invited me to before. He expressed his feelings for me in words for the first time, and told me that he wanted to date me with the intent of making me his wife someday. Since I had basically promised myself to him the day that I met him, I didn’t object. We were engaged 2 years later and married another 7 months after that. He proposed in the room where we met—just a few feet away from where my parents met. I was completely surprised, and the setting was perfect—roses, candlelight, a guitar, and a letter. After his proposal, he took me to the restaurant where I decided I wanted to marry him (the day I met him), and he had planned a surprise engagement party there at the same table where I first desired him. The wedding was perfect, too. I wrote about our vows once in a post I deleted—“I will be to you like a tree, firmly planted in streams of water, faithfully yielding its fruit in season, without fear in years of drought.”

Has this marriage been through drought? Yes, and we will go through it again. The marriage that my husband first spoke about eight years ago in a pool at a water park has certainly known thirst and famine. Why have I spent more than 2500 words telling you about how our love began?

I started this post on New Year’s Eve. For days of auld lang syne, I guess. On New Year’s Eve, we were only days away from celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary. I was trying to remind myself of all the reasons that I love my husband, because sometimes I choose not to see them. I have been unfair and unloving. I have hurt my husband deeply, sometimes with my words and more often with my silence. I’m sad to say that reaching six years of marriage was an accomplishment. Isn’t it supposed to be easy for at least the first decade? How did I end up like this? I started this post on New Year’s Eve and added to it on the days leading up to our anniversary. I think we fought all day the day before our anniversary and the morning that marked 6 years. I know it’s largely my fault—I’m still so broken about what has changed in the past few years, and it fuels fights that have nothing to do with whatever trivial thing sets them off. Some time in the late morning on our anniversary, we made up. We both acknowledged we had been wrong, and we didn’t want our stubbornness to ruin a special day. While I was blow-drying my hair later on (a forty minute process), I read over the things I had already written, and I noticed something—so much of what I wrote about hasn’t changed.

My husband is still a friend to those who face challenges he will never face. He is still driven toward worthy goals and the development of character. He is still intelligent and well-spoken, gentle and sincere. He gives me the best massages in the world—oh, those HANDS! He’s still a hottie with his shirt off, and he still tells me I’m beautiful so often that I might someday believe it. He still watches sappy movies with me, and he still kisses my hair every single day. His beliefs have changed. The man I married has not.

We spent the day of our anniversary surrounded by family we were visiting in the Pacific Northwest—no time to truly make up for the morning and the terrible day before. When we were finally alone at a restaurant that evening, I spent an entire two hours trying (tearfully) to put into words how sorry I am for resenting him for my own loss of faith and how much I love him for all the things that have never changed.

This is a memoir of days gone by—of days of auld lang syne. I look back on another year without faith, and as time passes, I’m losing any hope that I’ll ever return to it. But I also look back on a year with a man who has loved me in spite of knowing me. I look back on 8 years of a love that started growing in faith but developed into something organic that can be replanted in different soil and continue to develop roots and ultimately ascend—“I will be to you like a tree…” I also look forward to 6 more years of marriage with the man I love, and maybe even 60 more after that. Because I spent 2500+ words looking back, I am reminded of all the reasons that I can eagerly look forward.

Russell (yes, Russell of Russell & Pascal), please forgive me. Please keep me—if for no other reason than for days of auld lang syne. I can still be the woman you adored—be patient with me and help me adjust to new soil, to lay down new roots. Without fear in years of drought.

“We two have paddled in the stream from morning sun till dine.

But seas between us broad have roared since days of auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend,

And give me a hand of thine.

And we’ll take a right good-will draught for days of auld lang syne.

For days of auld lang syne, my dear

For days of auld lang syne,

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet,

For days of auld lang syne.”

-Robert Burns, “Auld Lang Syne,” English translation

Image courtesy of Christianbed.com, via Wikimedia commons; source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/125992663@N02/14577850796/

Come Back

“If you love me, come back.” It’s not a fair way to fight, I know—but these words echo through my childhood. I was certainly loved, but in imperfect ways and by imperfect people. When I could feel choppy waters rising around me, these words were my final gasp of air before going under. They were a desperate attempt to calm the storms, or at least secure a lifeboat.

My father was verbally abusive for much of my life. I was not the intended target of his word-weapons; my mother was. As a bystander, my wounds were many. He was large and handsome and commanded respect. I was small and fragile and desirous of affection. If he held my mom’s hand or scooped me up in his arms, my world was at peace. If he lost his temper, my world trembled—but at least he had enough passion to fight. At least he thought we were worth the effort he expended in being cruel. If he walked away, my world collapsed. “If you love me, come back,” I screamed through tears, barely able to form the words. He wouldn’t even turn around.

As I said, I know it’s not fair. I know that shouting a conditional statement through tears doesn’t make it a valid one and that my father could leave us in a moment of anger (probably in an attempt to control that anger) and still love us. But in those moments, he might as well have been screaming back at me, “I don’t love you.”

My prayers bring me back to those lonely nights. Yes, I still pray sometimes to a God I don’t believe in. I guess it’s habit. I don’t really walk away from anyone, and I don’t let people walk away from me easily—relationships are worth fighting for. I wish I could find a way to put my struggle with faith into words. I wish you could see that I have been, that I am fighting for it. I wish you could hear the roaring silence after I weakly ask Him to speak to me or feel the loneliness that crowds my heart when I ask to simply feel His presence.

It was easier for me when my dad’s verbal abuse became physical (in the form of drugging my mom), because I knew it was a prison sentence that kept him from me—not abandonment. It is easier for me if God is dead or not even real, because then I am not devastated by the nothingness that follows my pleas for Him. I wouldn’t have to understand Him, if I could know that He is God. I could adore Him—even while questioning His wisdom and goodness—if I could be certain of His love.

I have at times described my loss of faith as “walking away,” but that isn’t right. I haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve just done the same thing I did when I was a little girl—I’ve stopped constantly watching the door, waiting in vain for Him to walk through it. He either does not exist, or He walked away from me. If it is the former, none of this matters. If it is the latter, I’m still here. If you love me, come back.

Grace and Peace and the Wrath of God

There’s nothing like a hand-written letter. I’m a glutton for words in any medium, but letters are my favorite. I can have a lengthy phone conversation and never really say anything. Small talk and idle chatter can fill up hours, but they cannot fill up hearts. When I filter my thoughts through a fountain pen, the marks on the paper are intentional and purposeful and meaningful to the one person whose eyes will fall on them. The recipient has what few people in my life ever have—my undivided attention and my deepest thoughts. I cannot write a letter while I clean my house or change a diaper, and I would not write a letter if my words did not require my focus, thoughtfulness, and time. Why waste ink and good stationery if I’m not saying anything that matters? Letters demand action—will they be read and re-read, or stuffed in a drawer or a book? Will they be preserved or destroyed? They can’t be minimized from a computer screen as these words can. Letters take up space in homes and in hearts. The letters that hold the greatest area of real estate in mine were written by a man named Paul.

Yes, I am a skeptic—but I don’t spend much time doubting that Paul wrote the words that have been attributed to him. Just as I could recognize a van Gogh painting or my mother’s potato soup recipe, I recognize Paul’s meter and content without having to watch him pen the words I have treasured for most of my life. On the other hand, I am honest enough with myself to know that I have been wrong in letters. I have written about events I misinterpreted and about subjects so steep that I should not have attempted to scale them, and I realize that Paul could have done the same. Maybe that’s why his words still move me—they bear my reflection; they are the beautifully imperfect words of a human passionately interpreting his world. Paul may or may not write about reality, but no one could argue that his perceptions were not real to him.

I follow a blog that is co-authored by a Christian and an atheist who write under the pseudonyms “Russell” (the atheist) and “Pascal” (the Christian). They have moved painfully slowly and have brought up many topics of discussion without really delving into them, until recently. This week, Pascal said in a post that he wishes to explain scripture as he understands it, with an open ear to criticism. Scripture is one of Russell’s (and my) greatest obstacles against accepting Christianity. Pascal is starting with Romans, and I’m delighted with his choice to begin with my favorite letter-writer, as well as his courageous attempt to discuss beloved words with those who don’t believe in them. He has a goal: “to reveal how a modern Christ-follower understands and applies scripture to his life and relationship with others.” Now we can talk.

So, I’ll start at the beginning of the book that Pascal discusses. The book opens with what might be one of the longest sentences ever written. Paul is a magician with punctuation, since his sentences flow well despite their length—but he is not a fan of periods. He describes himself as a servant of Christ, called and set apart for the gospel. He writes to promote the obedience of faith among those in Rome who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. He offers a context of grace and peace before he begins. Interesting. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Next, Paul includes in his letter words that I have often included in my own—thankfulness and prayers for the recipients, as well as a longing to be “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.” This is harmonious with chords in my heart. I get it. In many ways, it explains so much of my journey. As humans, we long for validation. How easy it is to hold on to belief when bound to others within that belief by mutual encouragement. How affirming it is when a sister or brother’s prayers for me echo my prayers for myself, or when they battle my doubt with an insistence that they see Jesus in me, and that it is a blessing to them. How could I ever leave? I’d be like a fish out of water—but not really. Fish out of water die, so it’s a weak analogy for being in an unfamiliar, uncomfortable, yet not-quite-deadly situation. It should really be “like a fish in different water.” If the transition happens slowly enough, the fish might be in some brief shock, but it will acclimate. So did I. For me, affirmation in faith with one group of people waned about a year ago during the exact time that fellowship with doubters increased. The degree of mutual encouragement shifted from one group to the other, and after a period of intense discomfort I one day realized I had more of it from the doubters than from the believers. A fish in new water. And I survived.

Paul continues. He is not ashamed of the gospel. “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith.” I’m not sure of what the wording means here, and I don’t like to use concordances. Maybe that makes me a bad Bible student, but I prefer to interpret scripture on my own instead of relying on someone else’s opinions. Ideally, I would understand the original languages so I could form my interpretations based on the exact original words—but I’ll be realistic and say that’s never going to happen. So bear with my extremely personal interpretation, and feel free to point out where it is inevitably flawed. You probably won’t offend me. “Revealed from faith for faith.” To me, this is saying that because of faith we can understand the righteousness of God in the gospel, and an understanding of the gospel’s presentation of the righteousness of God is also necessary for our faith. From faith, for faith. My head hurts already. Regardless of where we find ourselves in this circle, Paul reaches a conclusion: The righteous shall live by faith.

What of those who do not have faith?  The unrighteous “suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them […] so they are without excuse.” I wouldn’t call myself unrighteous, but I don’t have the faith that the righteous live by. I suppose that by that definition, I am unrighteous. I do not suppress the truth; I seek it. What is my excuse for not acknowledging what Paul acknowledges as truth? God has shown me nothing. Attributing the created world to him allows for more complexity than assuming it just happened, and he did not leave his signature anywhere.

And then the heartbreaking part—“For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” At least it doesn’t say that God forced them into a life steered by dishonorable passions. At least it implies that God allowed them to go where they were headed anyway. But still, it sounds as if God gave up on them. I don’t believe in God, but my heart hurts as if I did. Why would he give up on me for doubting when he never even revealed himself (or if he did, it is only in a code I can’t seem to crack)? I don’t commit the crimes Paul writes about—the only thing that applies to me is my failure to acknowledge God. That’s something I would enthusiastically do if someone would give me a solid reason to. Why would he give me up instead of convincing me, instead of pursuing me? So much for leaving ninety-nine…

…and where is the grace? Where is the peace? Why must we endure the wrath of God for “suppressing” a truth that was unrecognizable and no more believable than anything else that claims to be true? It’s not like I saw a blinding light on the road to Damascus and chose to ignore it. How is anything about this God appealing? How does this God reflect Pascal’s two favorite words (mentioned in his second post on Romans), love and grace? Is love conditional? Is grace only for those who have found favor by already being everything the gracious God commands? It doesn’t seem so “unmerited” after all.

I don’t want to invade Russell & Pascal’s blog with my own lengthy thoughts, so I write here instead of there. So far, I have agreed with almost everything Russell has said–the only reason I say “almost” is because there are a few arguments so complex and over my head that I simply haven’t figured them out enough to say that I agree. But while I agree with Russell, I can relate to Pascal. He reminds me of who I used to be; he is familiar to me. As a doubter, I appreciate the love and respect he shows Russell. Although we disagree, I admire his love for the skeptic (something I have not yet seen in my own church), and I extend a hand of e-friendship to Pascal–and all others willing to walk through areas of disagreement with gentleness and respect.

Ending the Affair

Yesterday I spent the day outside with my family. My older daughter’s cheeks and mine are still pink from the sun, and her sweaty clothes have been added to the never-ending pile in the laundry room. Today, we won’t see the sun. I’m curled up in a bed in a dark room under heaps of heavy blankets, feeding a 16-pound replica of myself (without hair). Within the next few hours, the raindrops we hear falling outside will turn to ice. Hell is freezing over–my husband’s best friend is getting married today.

Most of the time I refer to him as my brother. He actually is a relative of my husband’s, and they grew up together. The blood relationship is a complicated one to explain (ever heard the song “I Am My Own Grandpa”? It’s kind of like that)–but it’s irrelevant. Even if they didn’t share blood, they would be brothers. It was initially difficult for me to find favor with this brother-friend. He wrote me a long letter after my husband and I fell in love, explaining how he was having a hard time with my ever-increasing real estate in my husband’s heart. He wrote with love, and I wrote back with love. I knew those words had been hard to write. I was also annoyed–he lived in the same city as my husband, and I lived two states away. How bad could it really be? Back in the days when cell phones had limited minutes (at least when your parents are footing the bill), I certainly wasn’t taking up all of his time. I told my then-boyfriend to make a conscious effort to throw his friend an extra bone every now and then, at least until he got used to our new relationship. With the letters, the air between us had cleared somewhat, and our friendship started to grow. We began to see each other as assets to a man we both loved in different ways. I am so blessed to call him my brother, and I am so thankful for the woman who won his heart. I think he would laugh if I mentioned those letters to him today–he understands now what it’s like to love one woman over all others…

…all others except one. He is a Christian, so his bride will always take second place. His future children will take third, followed by his extended family and close friends, his profession, and the rest of the others. She will also give him second place in her life. I noticed in last night’s rehearsal that she even modified the words to the song she will walk down the aisle to, cutting out a line that made her love for her groom sound stronger than a jealous God would allow.

Oh, I struggled with this. For me, people are just so easy to love. I think I have the love capacity of at least ten others packaged into one little body that can barely contain it all. It overflows in the many ways I express affection (most often through words). At the end of the day, my prayer of confession has often been this: Forgive me, Jesus–today I loved others more than I loved you. Idolatry. The idolatry escalated when my husband entered the picture, to the point where we almost broke up because our focus on each other was growing increasingly sharp while our eternal First Love faded into a blurry background.

As I watched last night’s rehearsal and looked at my husband standing there as Best Man, I remembered my own wedding night. I remembered how the date couldn’t even be set until the man I loved trusted that I didn’t love him too much. I remembered saving sex for marriage, because that’s what Christians do. I remembered the covenant made between the two of us and God–that our marriage was an earthly reflection of the covenant between Christ and the Church. I remember walking down an aisle toward him and then vowing to love him second for the rest of my life.

I remember hearing of his doubts months later and wondering if I could love him at all. I remember feeling cheated out of the spiritual leadership he had promised me. I remember wishing I could break my own vows.

And I want a re-do. I want to forget my vows about the symbolism of marriage, and I want to honor my husband by acknowledging what our marriage really is. It’s a covenant between us that stands on its own–not a shadow of something greater.

Darling,

For years I have loved another more than I love you. When you chose to love me first instead of Him, I wondered whether or not you were worth loving at all. I’m sorry.
I’m sorry for the mornings that I left you alone in our bed so I could spend time with Him.
I’m sorry for expecting that at least 10% of the money you earned would be given to Him.
I’m sorry for setting a goal for myself to think of Him more than I think of you.
I’m sorry for writing Him love letters that I never wrote to you.
I’m sorry for seeing every wonderful thing you brought to my life as a mere dim reflection of something more wonderful with Him.

I’m tired of writing love letters to Him–He never writes back. I’m tired of longing for His touch when yours somehow makes me feel heat and chills at the same time. I’m tired of longing to hear His voice when yours has been there all along, asking me to stay despite the fact that you loved me first when I wanted to be second. I’m tired of waiting for Him. It has been thousands of years and there’s still no sign of Him. The oil in my lamp has burned out. I don’t even believe He exists, much less that He is coming to receive His Church with a wedding banquet.

What if the love between a man and his bride is the greatest love a human will ever know? What if making love to you is the greatest possible intimacy I could experience? What if being known by you is the fullest way I will ever be known? What secrets have I told only to Him? What part of my heart do you still hope to win? What if all that I share with you is not a dim reflection, but the most dazzling light?

What if I’m so intent on seeing something beyond it that I miss it altogether?

I look to you as an anchor. The waters around me are ever-changing, but you have always been the same in your desire for truth and commitment to reason. You steady me; you would not let me be swept away by religion or emotion. You would not let me become lost in devastating currents of circumstance. This affectable vessel is safest when tied to you.

So tied to you I will remain. No more adultery with an imaginary God. It’s over. It’s finally over. I am yours and only yours until death parts us.

Paradise in my Arms

It’s 4:25 AM. I slept for 5 and a half hours before the soft cries of a child woke me up. She doesn’t usually wake up in the night, but my work schedule has recently changed–I think she misses me. Her call was half-hearted and unconvincing, and I knew she would probably fall back to sleep on her own…but I delight in her desire for me. I entered her room silently and stood next to her crib. Her tiny body writhed as her head turned from side to side, looking for something, but lost in the dark. I whispered her name. My nearness made her desire increase, evidenced by the intensity of her cry and the orientation of her face to me. I picked her up, and she stilled. I carried her to her changing table and laid her down for a clean diaper. She cried out again–not the need she wanted met at the moment. My timing is perfect, though–it would ruin everything to change her after I nurse her into a deep sleep. Of course, she didn’t understand that, so I reassured her softly throughout the process and finally held her close once again. We made our way to the happiest corner on earth and settled in under a blanket. She smiled, knowing from past experience what was to come. Her gaze locked onto mine as we connected, skin against skin. Her  eyes flickered upward and then disappeared behind eyelids. Her suck was slow and intermittent–she needed me, not a meal.

As I hold her now I remember how much I wanted her to exist and how long I waited to have her safely growing inside of me. I remember how painful and perfect it was to give her life outside of me, and how we struggled together for her first days, trying to break out into freedom as if we were caught in the cumbersome crowd at the beginning of a race. I remember watching her fight for life during an early illness, my heart breaking because she didn’t understand her pain, and I couldn’t take it from her. I remember her first smile in our kitchen and her first laugh in this chair three nights ago. And then I look forward. I imagine her first steps and potty training and kindergarten. I think about her little friends at her birthday parties and her first car and her prom date, college roommate, and husband. I think about helping her plan her wedding and about her planning nurseries for my grandchildren. I think about my husband–my first love and my partner in all of these things. I think about the probability that she will plan funerals for us someday–that we will leave her life as naturally as we leave her room every night, and she will live on.

What more do I need than this? How is this not enough? How is this life without God in any way meaningless? I live to walk through life with my husband, and our lives interact with other lives in a complex and imperfect dance that we learn as we go. We live so that this child may live, carrying a part of us with her through her life after we’re gone. The cycle is brutal, but life goes on, possibly until the sun engulfs the earth, and possibly beyond that day. Who’s to say that mankind won’t find a way to survive? We’ve already come so far. I don’t need to have those answers to have hope and meaning. I need my baby’s breath on my skin. I need the warmth of my husband’s body next to mine as I go back to sleep for one more hour. I need the satisfaction of a day well-spent. I need the love and affection of others in a tangible way–exactly what I’ve offered to my daughter in these precious moments. Exactly what I’ve never known from a God whose love was inferred, assumed, imagined. I need to stop wasting my life living for a future paradise, and live instead for the one right in front of me.

Espionage

I feel like a spy most Sundays. My husband and I continue to take our family to church each week—the necessary and unfortunate consequence of being closet atheists—so that people will know us by name when my parents stay for the weekend and go to church with us. Pathetic, I know. We don’t really fit in at the church we’ve been attending for almost a year, but we’ve exhausted most other local options. Since we have to go somewhere, it might as well be there—it’s not like we’re expecting to have our minds changed, anyway.

 I’m really not a bitter atheist. I’m not angry with a God I don’t believe in. I’m not angry with people who follow Him, and I don’t think they are any less intelligent over all than I am. After all, it was less than three years ago that I really started questioning. It’s just so easy to believe what has been reinforced to you your entire life. I understand that. In fact, most of my favorite people in the world are Christians. Some of the most intelligent, thoughtful, and well-read people I know are Christians. I have one major problem with Christians: I love so many of them more than they love me. I love them more without Jesus than they love me with Jesus.

 Before I go further, let me be clear about one thing: the failure of Christians is not the reason that I am an atheist. I’m human too, and I am pitifully inconsistent when it comes to my actions in the positions I hold. I fail my husband daily as his wife, but I am thankful that we are bound to each other by more than our words and actions, and he continues to call me his. I fail my children daily as their mother, but nothing will change the fact that I carried and delivered them. In the same way, I expect Christians to also fail to live up to the standards they hold themselves to. If I could see direct evidence that the God of the Bible is real and wants a relationship with me, I would believe it—I would believe the Church’s position in Christ despite its failures. The severe love deficiency I perceive harms the Church’s ministry—but not my own faith.

 Christians are failing to love atheists. Of course, this is a broad statement. Some Christians do a great job of loving atheists. But in general, the Church is excelling when it comes to loving those under its roof and doing a lousy job of loving those who live in the shadow of its steeple.

 Two Sundays ago, my husband and I heard these words from the leader in our Bible study class at the end of a lesson that would have sent many closet atheists out the door in the first fifteen minutes:

 “You can tell a lot about someone by asking who they say Jesus is. If they answer that He was a teacher or a prophet or a historical figure, stop them right there and say ‘NO—He is God.’ That should pretty much put a stop to that conversation.”

 Someone else added “They’re not worth talking to, anyway.”

 My husband put his hand on my leg as a warning. He knows I have a strong spirit, and I’m not afraid to challenge something that isn’t right. He wanted to make sure that I realized that in this case, there was no point in arguing. After the lesson we had just heard from the leader and the enthusiastic affirmation from the group throughout it, they wouldn’t listen to the voice that quietly says, “But what about love?” I didn’t need the warning, although I was thankful for my husband’s touch as confirmation that he heard the same words I heard and felt the contempt. My spirit was broken. The blow was too great for me to recover from; I was too unsteady to retaliate. Instead of giving a thoughtful, challenging response to the people on the outside who had just declared themselves my enemy, I could only fight back tears that threatened to betray me from within my own walls. I’m worth talking to. I’m worth loving.

 The Jesus I read about in Philippians 2 poured himself out…so why does the Church keep Him bottled up in four walls? If God is love, why keep Him stuffed in a wooden crucifix? Christians, I don’t believe in your God, but I want that love. I love you. I want your friendship. I think you’re worth talking to. And if you would talk to me and try to understand me, I think you might find that I’m worth your time. I think you might even love me too. Oh, and just so you know—making an emphatic claim does not by any means stop the conversation.

 A Christian acquaintance who doesn’t shy away from the conversation recently challenged me to be willing to doubt my doubt. As part of my commitment to that, today I dusted off the Bible I haven’t opened since late last spring. I didn’t really know where to start, so I went to the back of the Bible and looked up today’s date in the one-year reading plan. One of the chapters was Luke 14—The Cost of Being a Disciple. Look it up, and then tell me if your God would agree that I’m not worth talking to. As the story goes, Christ left everything behind to reach me, because I was worth it to him. If you are a follower of Christ who has counted the cost of discipleship, I must be worth it to you, too.

 I’ll leave you with a challenge. Sometimes, those who live in the shadow of the steeple will step inside the walls of a church. Be careful what you say. I don’t care if you hurt your ministry, because I don’t believe in your God—but I care if you hurt my family, my friends, and others who believe (or don’t believe) as I do. The church I attend makes me feel every week that I’m hiding behind enemy lines, and that’s not how it should be. I’m waiting for that emptying-out kind of love. In the mean time, I refuse to stop the conversation. Until I can have it there, I will have it here.