I’ve just finished a session at a youth conference. This weekend, I decided I would tell my story. Whatever handful or hundred-ful of girls decided to come and listen, I’d be honest. I’d speak clear from where I’ve been. In sixty minutes, in two separate sessions, I shared. I talked about Jesus, grace, sin, affairs, abuse, lies, legalism, and every little corner of my life that led me to finally falling on my knees and admitting that I am incapable of solving my own mess. I cut open the proverbial jugular and stood on the hope that if I became less, maybe Jesus, grace and the Gospel would become more. If I could juxtapose my poor decisions against the “scandalous grace” of the Gospel, than perhaps some of these smart and amazing teenage women would find freedom on the edges of their faith. My prayer was that through my vulnerability they might see Jesus. Maybe they’d see a refuge for their own story. Maybe somehow the two might meet in that dusty cavernous place of empty hearts and the empty grave.
As I finish and pray, I watch the room of girls stir and a line forms to talk with me. Their faces are etched with pain, brokenness, and streaks of make-up lined tears. I stand with each, listen to story after story of abuse, sin, self-hatred, self-sufficiency. And the tears, oh the tears.
One woman comes up to me at the very end, and I know her face. I’ve seen it throughout the years, popping up in my Facebook newsfeed, here and there. I know she’s a woman who prays and she will gather a list of needs and take it to her knees, and this is the legacy she is leaving. I know this. I see it in her beautiful aging hair and her slight smile as she steps toward me.
“I want you to know,” she says, as she takes my still shaking hands in hers. “Your brother wasn’t the same all those years. He was a broken man. He never stopped waiting for you to return.”
I nod, and my tears are starting to catch in my throat. She pulls me in for a hug and I realize that this is the moment she may have interceded for over the past 9 years.
“Thank you,” I say into her ear, as the girls still wait behind me. “Thank you for praying.”
And never before have the words meant so much to me.
It was nearly 7 years ago now when my brother Derek and I finally stopped talking altogether. A few months before my wedding, he had sent a final letter, pleading with me to reconsider. The man I was about to marry had left his wife and children for me and all the reasons I gave Derek that it was the “right” decision did not equal “right” and our family fractured under the weight of my choice.
In the wake of the affair, I left the ministry that Derek and I served in together. We went from being shoulder to shoulder in worship and heart, to toe to toe in beliefs and anger. I dodged his questions. I lied. I left New York and ran to Texas, and hoped that maybe distance would make his judgement of my sin lessen. That perhaps if he didn’t see me, it wouldn’t hurt him as much. If he didn’t have to see that I was still with this man, that I had no intention of leaving him, that I wanted to avoid confrontation, maybe Derek would eventually come around and accept me and the life I had made for myself.
I wanted to go on with my life and make my choices as I saw fit. I didn’t want anyone telling me it was wrong. And instead of fists and screams, we used words. Begging and fighting, we threw letters across thousands of miles with rhetoric and daggers because our family was shattering and our hearts were breaking and I was obstinate.
The man I was marrying had run off with me, leaving his wife and children behind, and in spite of all my misgivings and doubts along the way, I just wanted someone to tell me that the decision I made was okay. That marrying him after it all was somehow the most redemptive thing.
But my brother did not see it that way. In his final letter to me, he told me he and his wife couldn’t support our decision. They had disfellowshipped with us as believers and after we had rejected the discipline of two churches, they had no reason to believe that we were in any state of repentance or restoration.
Marriage did not change that.
I just wanted him to give me his ok. I wanted the acceptance in my heart. The unrest ate me alive.
I’ve just written my siblings about the news. “I’m writing a book about all of it,” I tell them. “I just wanted you all to know. I love you and I’m so thankful for redemption. I just wanted you to know.”
They reply with verbal cheers, words of blessing and continued affirmation that we can all hold this story up to say “look what the Lord has done”, dancing around as we used to do in our old pentecostal days.
“We were all confused, and were all trying with our limited understanding to do what we felt to be best and with a good conscience,” Derek writes to me now. We have found friendship again, and maybe more than ever before, a kindred brokenness. I see in him a brother, not just in flesh but in soul. This is something I’d never thought I’d feel again. “Surely we all erred, but it was because we wanted to save you. Breakthrough came (at least for me), when I gave up trying to save you and left you with the Savior.”
In the last 7 years, I’ve carried a child into this world. I watched my own marriage fall apart under the weight of sin, infidelity, and the absence of faithfulness. And now, after years of working through restoration, as God brings it in small doses and placid lines of grace, I am sitting next to Derek as we worship. We have cried. We have apologized. We have seen restoration and peace where we both once doubted we’d ever see it again. We are both the ones who found grace where we least expected it. We both discovered that the party of the prodigal son is for both sons, not just the one who returned.
A young girl confesses to me this weekend that she is tired. She doesn’t find joy in Christian living. It all feels like too much. “I’m exhausted of it,” she says as the tears stream with mascara down her cheeks. “I don’t want to try anymore.”
I say what I feel needs to be said, the thing that finally set me free and I hope it sets part of her free today. I hug her, and we pray, and I say, “Maybe it’s ok to stop trying. Then perhaps, you’ll see Jesus still takes you in, even if you’re not sure. Better to stay in the wrestle for years than to keep faking it or just walk away.” It’s somewhere in the middle of all the questions, when we see we can’t save ourselves, I tell her, that we finally understand where Jesus becomes the Savior. As long as we’re trying to win our own lives over with good, we’ll never look to the one who is only good. I see her, her tiny legs of lamb faith are tired and she has sat down on the edge of the field and I want to tell her, “Child it’s fine. Stay here. Jesus will not judge your weariness. Better to rest than to run and break your legs, or leave and fall off the cliff. Better to rest these legs and stop trying.”
I want to tell her that I will pray. I tell her to email me. And I hope, someday, I will see her again and grab her shaking hand to say the words that she never stopped being His.
“Because salvation is by grace through faith, I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.
‘But how?’ we ask.
Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’
There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.
My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.”
- Brennan Manning (from The Ragamuffin Gospel)
Image Credit: “Braken Growing Through” by David Reece licensed under CC BY 2.0