The Act

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I went to a circus two weeks ago with my brother and sister-in-law. I’m staying with them while I do a rotation in a city two hours away from home, and I felt that I owed them at least part of my day off in exchange for their hospitality. They felt the need to entertain me, so to the circus we went—“The greatest show on earth.” I hated it. Of course I was gracious and thanked my siblings for the invitation—they had no idea how I felt. Ironically, by not expressing my true feelings, I was acting out the very thing I despised about the circus.

What kind of person hates the circus? It was the clowns that haunted me the most. Yes, I know—clowns haunt many people. I was terrified of them as a child after accidentally walking into the living room one night while my older brothers watched Poltergeist. I’ve outgrown that fear, and these clowns struck me for a different reason. From the second row of the audience, I could see past their makeup. From the second row, I could see the pained expressions behind painted-on smiles. Most of the clowns seemed born to perform. Their talent was remarkable, and they stayed in full character—their true expressions matching the spirit of the circus. The few who did not were the ones I couldn’t tear my eyes from.

Were they bored? Exhausted? Or worse—were they empty? Was this not the life they envisioned? Why do they do this if it’s not who they are? Are they stuck?

My discomfort was not due to an inability to relate. Rather, it was because what I saw before me was all too familiar. So much of my life has been spent as a circus clown—masking my heart with makeup. And my thoughts turned to my daughter, who would really start learning “the act” in two weeks as a kindergartener.

I saw the first glimpses of it today as I took my 5-year-old to her kindergarten classroom for her first day of school. Of course, I contributed to the act. I bought her the new backpack and lunchbox and all the new clothes. I packed her lunch and put a note in her lunchbox, fed her a healthy breakfast, and walked her into her classroom with a gift for her teacher in hand. I felt like a fraud—this is not the mother I am, although it’s the mother I would love to be. The fact is, I left the city right after I dropped her off, and I won’t pack her lunch or take her to school again until November. I won’t even live at home again until October. Our little family that went through all the motions so perfectly today is hurting.

Even my daughter is learning the act. When it was time for her to take her seat, she turned around suddenly and hugged me tightly. When she finally pulled away, I saw big tears in both of her eyes. I knelt down to her level. “Are you going to cry?” I asked. “No, I’m fine,” she said, avoiding my gaze. “I just got something in my eye.” She quickly found her seat and began to color. I was astonished at her façade. She is our emotional child and had never fought tears before. Crying was suddenly off-limits in her mind.

Her teacher introduced her to the morning activity and pointed out the location of the books so she could “practice reading” when she finished it. From another table, a little girl haughtily informed us, “I already know how to read,” and proceeded to name off several other skills she has already mastered. I jokingly muttered the word “gunner” under my breath to my husband—a term frequently used to describe medical students who are overly competitive and ambitious, and might even seek recognition from superiors at the expense of classmates or colleagues. I actually saw myself in that little girl—although failure over the years has humbled me significantly. Her mother later told us that she doesn’t know how to read—she has simply memorized parts of books they have read to her. This child was already part of the act—exerting dominance, seeking praise. My daughter actually does know how to read and said nothing to her classmate in defense of her own skills—keeping peace like her father might do.

I am only just now learning as an adult that I’m better off without the act. This blog and my support network here have helped immensely with that. So why have I been silent for almost two months? I’ll be honest—after a time of intense encouragement that came with my brother’s recovery and my family’s healing, the reality of normal life hit hard:

In response to my own journey, I heard hatred from believers louder than I heard love. Many of you were supportive and encouraging, but it takes ten times as much of that to overcome one hate-filled comment. Even still, thank you for being there.

After my brother became more and more himself again, I realized that he’s still the same person who didn’t acknowledge my marriage or the birth of my children. Yes, we talk on the phone weekly now—something we never did before. No, I don’t enjoy it. I’m still not sure he loves me at all, and the connection we had started to build before he became sick has dwindled to nothing. Still, I persist. This will not fail for lack of effort.

And—this is the hardest thing to write—after all of my words about love winning, I realized last month for the first time how my heart is prone to wander. No, I did not have an Ashley Madison account and never would. Attacks on my heart are less obvious than that—and thus perhaps more dangerous. They are unexpected, not sought. They come in the subtle form of gentle words and thoughtful questions and humble praise of my beauty and confidence and competence. For the first time in nine years, I had strong feelings for someone who wasn’t my husband. We worked together for a month, and nothing happened between us beyond his expression of feelings for me (on my last day of the rotation) that he insisted he would never act on and my confession that I shared them—then the mutual recommitment to protect our hearts for our spouses. He was only in my area of work for a brief time, and we will not work together again. I told my husband everything that same day, and his graciousness to me was overwhelming. My feelings had been present for weeks, but I had refused to acknowledge them until my colleague put them into words—I’m glad he did, because it shook me awake. I finally, finally understand why some people are so cautious with things like this. I have finally seen the danger of what my heart is capable of and been terrified enough to draw the line a mile from the edge of the cliff. The danger will remain and perhaps increase as my confidence and competence grow—but I will be prepared.

In the mean time, I am deeply feeling the distance from my husband while I work here and grieving the way my heart failed him. He is the one who has been there for nine years. He is the one who has done most of the work in raising our two daughters. He is the father of the child that draws flesh inside of me right now. He is the one who has loved me through every blog post I have written and walked my heart through the season that surrounded each one. He knew me—every flaw, every failure—and loved me anyway. He made me into the woman that other men fall in love with. How is that fair? He took me out on two date nights in a row this weekend, and the conversation was precious and healing. Russell, my heart is yours only for the rest of our lives.

So, readers, how is this for wiping off the painted face and ending the act? It’s probably more than you ever wanted to know in explanation for my silence. But I need you. With tears pouring down my face—tears that I will not begin to fight—please understand that I need you. My silence is because of a stunned spirit. The magic of June faded into the reality of July. Many believers rank highly on the list of the meanest people I know. My brother came back from a brush with death, and he is still a narcissistic jerk. And my heart that was so moved by love is capable of the worst imaginable things. I…am…broken. And I feel like God is silent. This is why I haven’t written. I’ve been afraid of what I would write. Afraid of what you would write in response. I am a master of the act, but I’m so sick of performing it.

So this is the kind of person who hates the circus. A disenchanted member of it. And as I dropped my daughter off at kindergarten, I wanted something better for her. I don’t ever want her to wear a mask that fails to synchronize with the status of her heart. I want her to be more concerned about her heart than about her backpack or her clothes or any aspect of her appearance. I want her to be humble and honest about her talents and abilities, but I also want her to be strong enough to defend them. I never want her to hold back tears when she needs others to see them and walk beside her the way I need you right now. I want her to feel the freedom to not be anonymous the way I am—to be wildly who she is instead of captive like an elephant that can stand on its head or balance on a stool. If my kindergartener can walk through the coming years without succumbing to the rigidity of the act—something I didn’t learn until adulthood—she could be so much more thrilling to watch than the greatest show on earth.

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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]

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/

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.

The Artist

My favorite book is The Picture of Dorian Gray. I’m really not a dark person—it’s just that the book stuck with me, and I’m not sure I even know why. It’s one of those books that isn’t over after you read it—you have to sit down and just think for a couple of hours after you finish the last page, and it keeps coming back to you for the rest of your life. I do know that I have always marveled at the thought of a portrait being able to realistically portray the contents of a person’s heart, rather than their physical appearance. I’ve often wondered, what would my heart look like on canvas? How would today’s portrait compare with one from four years ago?

 Four years ago. Just before the change in me began. Four years ago, my husband told me of his doubts about everything we had put our faith in. I wept. I prayed for him to have childlike faith. I was pregnant, and I questioned the wisdom of raising future children with him in a divided home—although I knew I would honor my wedding vows and be his bride for the rest of our lives together. Perhaps my faith helped his for a time, or perhaps he put his doubts on the back burner and feigned belief for the sake of our marriage. Either way, the problem disappeared for a while. To be honest, we didn’t talk much about our faith—I think I was afraid to give him the opportunity to speak with transparency.  His doubt was terrifying for me…mostly because I didn’t have any real answers for him.

 Months later, I received a phone call that impacted me significantly. I was sitting at my sewing machine making birthday party decorations for my daughter. Her party was going to be our last gathering with family before transplanting our lives to another city for my career. I was hemming a tablecloth when the phone rang. I answered it and received a perky greeting from a woman who worked in the preschool ministry at my church. She explained that they were short on volunteers this year and had been praying about couples they could ask to help out with watching babies and toddlers on Sunday mornings. “I was on my knees today just crying and praying that God would lead us to the people He wanted for the job,” she began as I stopped sewing and swallowed hard. “He immediately placed you and your husband on my heart, and I felt such a peace come over me. I knew He was going to use you in a wonderful way with our children’s ministry.” The reactive part of me wanted to be angry and even sarcastic, but my filter won this battle, and my words were gracious. “I really wish we could, but we’re moving pretty far away next week. But thank you so much for thinking of us.” She seemed surprised and embarrassed, and she quickly and awkwardly ended the call. I sat there with my head in my hands, far too shaken up by what had just happened. One of three things had to be true, and none of them were good. Either 1) God messed up and completely forgot we were moving when He placed us on her heart, or 2) she lied and used a God-story to manipulate a fellow believer, or 3) she perceived something that wasn’t real during a time of sincere prayer. If I believed in an omniscient God, option 1 wouldn’t make sense. If I know this woman as well as I think I do, option 2 doesn’t fit. Even though it’s more likely than option 1, I’m willing to give her the benefit of a doubt. So that leaves option 3. She perceived something that wasn’t real. Wow. She thought of us during a time of prayer for any number of reasons (we have a kid, we love working with kids, we are both very popular in our home church, etc.)—and she perceived it as being a message from God. And she felt peace about it.

 Why was I so shaken? I couldn’t stop thinking, how many times have I done this? How many times have I felt a “peace” about a decision? How many times have I felt His love and His rejoicing over me? How many times have I sensed His pleasure in my worship or His broken heart over my sin? How many times was it only my imagination?

 I wasn’t ready to let my faith go. I tried as hard as I could to push this incident out of my memory. I blamed it on option 2, even though that went against my instinct, and I continued to force myself to trust my perceptions of God. But the outer wall of my faith had been breached. Over the next year, my husband and I began once again to discuss his doubts. He became bolder with his questions, and I felt alone. I had lost the spiritual leader I had married, and my weak response to his doubt was “Just have faith.” Inwardly, I knew that my own faith was weakening. A year after our move, I told him that I also doubted. I began to feel like the whole concept of “faith” was just designed to squelch the legitimate questions that were bound to come up against a made-up religion. One day he had the courage to share with me a parody of Christianity on a blog he followed. It made more sense to me than I ever wanted it to. I wasn’t prepared to call myself an atheist, but I could certainly relate to their struggle.

 In a last-ditch effort to salvage my faith as winter approached, I reached out to other people whose intelligence and faith I respected. If this brilliant person believes, can’t I believe too? I think my heart must have looked something like a flailing squirrel after contact with a vehicle tire—emotions firing like neurons in the throes of death. My faith surged and convulsed with the reassurance of believing friends as I strove with angst to hold on to the life that was pouring out of it. Of course, my expectations were unrealistic. No other person could save my soul. Even the most eloquent spiritual mentor had nothing more to offer me, and I found myself once again alone with my husband’s doubts, two days before my grandmother’s death.

 My grandmother had been such a foundation for my family, her faith an anchor in my tumultuous life. Yet even she found herself terrified of death, questioning everything she had spent her life convincing me of. Her end-of-life struggle reminded me of the awkward phone call from almost two years before. She was afraid that she had imagined God’s presence in her life. She wondered if she had ever encountered Him at all, or if she had wasted her life perceiving things that were not there. I made a promise to myself to explore these things now—not in my last days of life. My grandmother had a lifetime of questions that she only allowed herself days to ask, and she died without the peace that comes from resolving them.

 My questions continued, but by this time, my husband was the only person still answering. I became more willing to hear his doubts—not wanting to deal with them on my own at the end of my years. His questions became my questions, and his answers to them slowly became my answers. It’s not that he convinced me to believe what he believed—it’s more that he gently challenged me to lay down beliefs that I couldn’t justify holding. I’ll dive into these questions and answers more as time passes. One day my husband asked me where I stood in my beliefs, and I surprised even myself when I answered, “I’m an atheist.”  

 It’s hard to believe that four years ago I wept over my husband’s doubts. Am I even the same person? How different would my heart’s portrait look now? I’d like to think it has improved. I now love a group of people that I used to feel threatened by. I now sympathize with the intellectual, questioning mind instead of becoming angry and defensive. My heart breaks for the gay people I used to judge, who are told they are sinning when they follow a course their DNA has mapped out for them. I hurt for the people who feel rejected by a God who simply didn’t call them into belief or for the ones who wonder why God gave them a mind if the Church tells them not to use it. I feel nothing but love and sorrow for the Christians who give their all to the cause of developing and strengthening the faith of those around them, only to die with fear and confusion like my grandmother did. I love more; I judge less; I no longer lie to myself with a hopeful imagination. I have let go of the pride that says “there is only one way, and I know it.” And…I feel peace. Unlike my grandmother, I think I could approach death with satisfaction in the reality of a life lived well and honestly—not with the fear of an uncertain eternity or the regret of wasted years. Until I reach that day, I take ownership of my own brush strokes, not relying on another source for sanctification or perfection of the portrait. With humility, I sketch the image with a pencil before I ever apply paint at all. There is no more sobering responsibility or more humbling thought than that I am the artist of my soul.