A New Story

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We celebrated our anniversary last week and it has me thinking about the past 9 years and all the things marriage has taught me. I think everyone has that one thing that continues to be the sole shaper of their life. The thing that continually draws repentance and forgiveness and try-agains. Mine is marriage.

When we started out I don't think we knew all the baggage we were bringing under one roof. Because we were virgins, because we'd never drank alcohol, and because I'd never even wore a bikini I think we (and our parents) thought that life was starting out in the best possible way for two young people. But eventually, the clothes come off and the atrophied organs of repentance, humility, and grace stare at you in the face. Surgery is needed. Bad.

Our wedding day, August 10, 2007. Real feel of 110 degrees that day, so the sweat struggle was real.

Our wedding day, August 10, 2007. Real feel of 110 degrees that day, so the sweat struggle was real.

When we got to our honeymoon destination I thought, "Life is perfect." Pacific coastal houses dotted the cliffs and the lights reflected off of the ocean. The waves were washing up into the natural rock pool below the steps of the lighthouse and if you looked over the infinity edge of the cliff you could see seals swimming around in the pool. California was always a mutual love affair for us, so this. This was our happily ever after.

We slipped into the jacuzzi tub that overlooked the pacific and the neighbor peeked his head out of the window just above us. He hollered out introductions and wanted to know where we were from. We made small talk, told him we were from the east coast celebrating our honeymoon, and mentioned how generous our friend Kelly and was for letting us use the house for a week! He knew her well and seemed as genuinely joy-filled for our recent nuptials as our families were with an excited, "Wait just a minute. I'll be right back!!!" A few minutes later he emerged from the window, grinning from ear to ear with a nice bottle of wine.

"Here! This is for you!"

Now, granted, I didn't know a good bottle of wine if I'd tried. But given the neighborhood, I had a hunch it was expensive.

"Oh, we don't drink!"

Why we didn't just accept it politely with a sincere "thank you" I'll never know, but his face that night is something I'll never forget. He looked confused and dejected and awkwardly shoved the bottle behind the window before wishing us a good night. We never saw him again. When I consider the kind of person it takes to refuse a stranger's generosity, all because of being too good to accept a bottle of wine, I want to cry.

I mourn this old version of me.

This honeymoon recollection is just one of many memories I have of being too stuck up, too prideful about my own convictions, too bent on being right, that I refused to see the heart of someone else. I wish I could say these feelings remained the inner workings of a critical soul, but as you'll learn in parenting, the heart is what drives the actions and the actions are a direct window into a person's soul. Many judgements and unfair accusations far worse than refusing a bottle of wine spilled out onto poor, undeserving people. Like my husband, my sister, my family, my friends.

Lord, they were the years of the locust.

Our honeymoon, Laguna Beach, CA 2007.

Our honeymoon, Laguna Beach, CA 2007.

If you don't come from legalism you will scratch your head at what I'm writing. The more times we've moved and had the opportunity to visit a variety of churches, the more I realize that my husband and I come from a very small representation of Christianity. Most people cannot relate to our experiences of preaching on appropriate shoes to wear to church, appropriate beats in a song, and an approved list of churches we could attend. But for those of you who do know, or who are recovering from perfectionism, you know that when I say the chains of externalism run deep, they run deep.

I tend to be the crusader who says, "Never look back! Let us rally and forge on ahead." because there is a slippery slope that comes with the past and living in it for too long. Yet, there was a point in our marriage where we moved from the south to the midwest and I had this realization one day that life. It was not meant to be this miserable with broken, fractured relationships and awkward confrontations. I wanted to know how it felt to live at peace with all men and not feel anxious that God was crouching waiting to judge our family for impossible standards we had imposed upon our own selves. I wanted to know what freedom felt like. And not the kind we'd always been sternly warned about from pulpits, but I wanted to know what it felt like to be free to confess, to be free to be vulnerable, to be free to fail, and to be free to grow, without the vultures of criticism sapping the marrow from my bones.

For all my dissatisfaction, I just didn't know how to get that kind of freedom. For years we stumbled around trying to find a church home that accepted us, with one foot in legalism and one foot in a taste of grace. Shortly after our move, we left the church denomination we'd been raised in. Through counseling, some pastors lovingly confronted our self-righteousness, not to mention our gross theological errors. With legalism come subtle misinterpretations of the gospel and I was so confused. Didn't God owe me because I'd been faithful? Wasn't I promised blessings, not curses, and by the way, where were they? God was measuring us. Sin was sin. The Bible black and white. Wasn't I called to confront those who were obviously living in disobedience?

Little did I know that I had never been faithful, never measured up, and was most certainly living in disobedience of one of the seven deadly sins - pride. Our services were more liturgical in nature and I remember bowing my head every week as prayers of confession were recited. I had never heard such humility, especially not collectively in corporate worship. I had never heard anyone say, "You are more sinful than you could ever dare imagine and you are more loved and accepted than you could ever dare hope."

And hearing those simple, yet profound, words week after week broke me.

My ignorance is laughable now, but the idea of repentance was just not a concept I had considered. My life's mission was to be so perfect I'd never need to ask for forgiveness. It wasn't like I never said sorry, but a life of confession was not my jam. So imagine over 8 YEARS of grievances that had built up and corroded over time. Our marriage was the first to be affected.

 

During our engagement. My head touching his shoulder means MAJOR no-no.

During our engagement. My head touching his shoulder means MAJOR no-no.

I often wonder if not getting married at 19 and 21 would have helped in this department. Was it a maturity issue? Were we just young and naive? Could we have found different spiritual paths before we'd started a family and come together at a healthier place in our lives? Steven's dad had taken his life mere months before we began dating, I had classic insecurity issues from my past with CO-DEPENDENCY warning signs written all over my forehead. Yet instead of finding liberty from it in a good and perfect Father (whom we had honestly never seen) we both used each other to deal with it. Or not deal, whichever your viewpoint.

But here's the thing: when you're full of unhealthy patterns, you don't know it. When you perceive yourself has holier than others, you only see right and wrong. You don't even consider the in between, the process, the journey. And for all our issues, I know of no other teaching ground better than the union of two sinners who never really knew they needed a Savior birthing children together. This combination has a way of perpetuating the blame game of who is holier than the other until somebody gives up. I remember the day clearly. The white flag of surrender that should have gone up the day I gave my life to Christ, but didn't. At this point, we had been married for 6 years and our relationship had been one pile of hard things on top of another pile of hard things (mostly by choice). But when I stopped and looked at the broken examples we had come from, it hit me. The choice lies with us. The cycle must end.

And that was the beginning of the beautiful surrender.

I started asking a lot of hard questions and instead of justifying my life patterns I asked God to give me a spirit of honesty and humility. I began looking at my relationships one by one and wondering why they weren't marked with more love and more grace. Why did other women seem to have a village helping them harvest wheat and I was off in a field by myself tearing up a field with a lone hoe? Why did toxic people feel like they could come and run my life, but the people I trusted and deeply cared about would rather run than tell me something hard I needed to hear? Why was I not saying sorry more often and opening up the window of confession in our own home? Why was I not petitioning for grace and peace? And where was the gospel in all of this?

Sadly, the gospel had been shut out a long ago and the people who needed it the most had not gotten it from me. I looked at the pieces of my prideful judgement and decided my first relationship repair should be with my husband. What started with a "Hey, I'm sorry." avalanched into a 2-year rock slide of fumbled attempts to right the wrongs I had made in my piety. As memories resurfaced and conversations were recalled, I dug people up on Facebook, sent emails, calls, and texts.

Weddings I should have been apart of.

Life events I should've been there for.

Hugs I should've given.

Forgiveness I should have readily imparted.

They had all piled up like missed opportunities and with them, blessing upon blessing. Yet I was so blinded by my convictions of no alcohol and modest dress and proper music that I didn't even see it. If it hadn't been for the freshly corrected realization that the gospel meant I was loved (plus nothing!), I might have slumped into withered despair at how disgusting I had been. But one by one I asked for forgiveness and my eyes began opening with a renewed sense of hope. This! This is the power of the gospel. A song couldn't even come on on the radio without my heart crumbling into two, crying at the joy that I'd been forgiven, restored, and was at peace. I was the most raw I've ever been in my life and for the first time in my life I saw people as souls. I can't help but wonder if that is what becoming a Christian looks like for a person. The world is made colorful. People are seen as equal, beautiful creations. And you walk around on a high feeling known, and loved, and accepted.

While I felt I had been given a new lease on life, my marriage was healing, and everywhere I looked I was seeing roses where there were thorns and sand castles where there were trash heaps, a reckoning does not always equate resolution. During my avalanche of righting all wrongs, there were unanswered petitions of forgiveness, misunderstandings, and separation from old and toxic habits and people. And while the past few years have brought a clarity to the fall-out of legalism, warped theology, and missed grace, I have drawn much comfort from the peace that passes all understanding.

I John 1:7 “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.”

God has brought a light to our family, illuminating our own toxicities. By doing that and continuing to do that, our marriage has been cleansed. Our family is healing. And through the whole painful process of rebuilding I have had this vivid picture in my head that follows me everywhere. It's one of our family running down a path into a woods lined with check boxes, familiarity, and safety. It is the easier path with promised results of conformity and reward. The other path is murkier, lined with unknowns and spirit-led direction. Yet, we round a bend one day and narrowly miss the edge of a cliff we see too late. We realize our mistake and just at the point we're slipping and we think we're done in for, God's loving hand swoops down, picks us up, cradles our hurts, and breathes...

"I will write a new story."

So we're running towards that and never looking back.

Mary Beth