The Practice of Encountering Others

“We have just enough religion to make us hate one another” Jonathan Swift once observed, “but not enough to make us love one another.” Because we are human, which is to say essentially self-interested, we are always looking for ways to add a little more authority to our causes, to come up with better reasons to fight for what we want than “Because I want it, that’s why.” If we can convince ourselves that God wants it too–even if that means making God in our own image so we can deny the image of God in our enemies–then we are free to engage in combative piety. We are free to harm others not for our own reasons but in the name of God, which allows us to feel holy about doing it instead of just plain bad.

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What we have most in common is not religion but humanity. I learned this from my religion, which also teaches me that encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get–in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing–which is where God’s Beloved has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery. The moment I turn that person into a character in my own story, the encounter is over. I have stopped being a human being and have become a fiction writer instead.

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Excerpts from An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor

Waking Up Outside the Cage

Although I have spent a lot of my life in jobs that require me to speak for God, I am still reluctant to do it for all kinds of reasons. In the first place, I have discovered that people who want to speak to me about God generally have an agenda. However well-intentioned they may be, their speech tends to serve as a means to their own ends. They have a clear idea about how I should respond to what they are saying. They have a clear destination in mind for me, and nine times out of ten it is not some place I want to go.

In the second place, too much speech about God strikes me as disrespectful. In the Upanishads, God is described as “Thou Before Whom All Words Recoil.” This sounds right to me. Anything I say about God will be inadequate. No matter how hard I try to say something true about God, the reality of God will eclipse my best words. The only reality I can describe with any accuracy is my own limited experience of what I think may be God: the More, the Really Real, the Luminous Web That Holds Everything in Place.

Even then, there is a good chance that my words will serve as an impediment for those who hear them. If “the Really Real” makes no sense to you, then you will have to find some way around that phrase before you can get on with your own description, which means that my speech about God has just done more to block your way than to open it. The only reason to accept such a risk is because most of us need to hear what other people say before we decide what to say about those same things ourselves.

From An Altar in the World; The Practice of Waking Up to God by Barbara Brown Taylor

Dying to Live and Love

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Boom. There it is. Plain words not shrouded in parable. Jesus gave the Pharisees what they asked for – a definitive “rule” to follow to be right with God.

I know, I know…we much prefer our Jesus as either a precious mute baby lying in a manger or as the silent slaughtered lamb on the cross, guaranteeing a ticket to heaven for those who will believe and confess just the right things about him. But there’s a lot of stuff he said and did in between that I’m just now seeing and hearing and allowing to infiltrate my being for the first time despite a lifetime in church world, half of that being spent in ministry and leadership myself. WTF have I been doing for the past 20 years and what bible have I NOT been actually reading to understand?


If Jesus is to be believed (which I suspect matters infinitely more than being believed in), loving God with my whole being is intrinsically linked to demonstrating love for my neighbor, and love for my neighbor, regardless if they look, live, or think like me (Luke 10:25-37), is defined by how I love myself.


I confess now to anyone who will listen how horribly I have failed in following this supreme two-fold commandment. It was not for lack of genuine desire to know and love God. It was not for lack of being raised by sincerely-motivated and exceedingly wonderful family (biologic and church) in a life centered around “right” worship of God.

What has been lacking is the ability to perceive the Great Truth – that I AM inherently loved, acceptable, whole, belonging and worthy. My ability to see and live in reality has been obscured and distorted by the Great Lie – that my default position is in no way lovable, acceptable, worthy or belonging untilor unless(fill in the blank with whatever “rule” or “fix” matches your particular brand of dysfunction).

In short, I’ve been duped into hating myself, berating myself, mutilating and debasing myself and trading the truth that God declares me Very Good for the lie that I am never, ever good enough and must exhaust myself to compensate for and mask my inadequacy.

Out of that self loathing comes all manner of resenting, judging, dismissing, degrading, and dehumanizing my neighbor, especially the ones who attempt to cover their shame in different ways than mine. Grape leaves? Psha! Everyone knows you’re supposed to use fig leaves. Cause BIBLE SAYS.

It’s been a hard, hard wean when you’ve been raised on the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil while being told it was the Tree of Life. The girl who has depended on that fruit for her survival and justification and “rightness” must starve and DIE if she wants to truly live.

She’s almost there. Dying is an ugly, desperately lonely business fraught with discouragement and temptation to quit and resume the old life of comfy, shiny deception where there’s plenty of company.

The last few years as I’ve honed in on this eternal Great Truth that IS, and has always been, in plain sight, the Great Lie has shrieked and swirled menacingly in an attempt to intimidate and distract me from the invitation to taste and see that the Lord is Good. “Don’t touch! Don’t taste! Don’t move! You will surely DIE!” So loud and persuasive but ultimately powerless and impotent.

Shut up, Satan (whether you come at me as Peter did to discourage Jesus in the form of pastors, parents, best friend or an entire church community) of COURSE I’m gunna die. That’s the whole point. I’m certain that in most cases you actually do care for me the way you do yourself, but that’s kind of the problem right there. You only have in mind the things of man and not of God. Your “reasonable” ideas of self preservation and success are a stumbling block and a dangerous trap. If you yourself won’t go with me, I understand…but get behind me and let me get to it.

Going all the way – myself – is the only way. The Way, The Truth, and The Life. Whoever wants to follow Jesus must deny their own justification, take up their own cross, and follow him into death. If I want to find my life I have to lose it. Only then do I have the capacity to love myself, my neighbor, and therefore God, in reality with my whole being as a whole person.

The Greatest Commandment on which everything hangs starts with this – I must resist the Great Lie in order to love myself…and the backwards way through requires self sacrifice and suffering. Jesus led the way and walks it again in me now.

The Truth does set us free, but we’ve got to be willing to die to everything else that encompasses the Great Lie first.

After a long season of starvation and death, it’s time for me to nourish and live. Coming up next, a much needed Love Letter to Myself from the only voice that gets to tell me the truth of who I AM. The lies have been allowed to have their way in me for far too long, keeping me from loving others, and therefore God, well.  See ya on the other side.

Dreams of Rejection

My dearest silly little Love, why are you crying now that you are solidly on the path with Me with both feet? I was totally up front with you that this is the straight and narrow road so many ignore in favor of the wide and glitzy one. Why do you grieve and mourn that you were rejected and maligned and abandoned for pointing to and following Me? This has always been exactly the gig I call anyone who can and will to accept…and you did! I’m overjoyed and ridiculously proud of you.

Rejoice, you darling girl! Dance, sing, celebrate on this road together with Me! You are swimming in more gorgeous fruit and abundant life than you’ll ever know what to do with.

Dreams of Rejection

All The Way

Go all the way…

That’s all They’ve given me – this Invitation to Die.

Be careful what you ask for in earnest, Child.

They will give you the desires of your heart. They’ve always made Good on Their Word.

Will I even recognize it?

Maybe the falling is all there is on this side of life.

What I mistook for arrival was a series of ledges.

Just enough time to catch my breath after having the wind knocked out of me.

Then…another free fall into intangible.

I’ve flinched and flailed in the darkness, losing my grip on ALL THE THINGS.

Now?

I anticipate nothing.

Done grasping.

Done fighting.

Done blaming.

Done explaining.

Done asking.

Done.

There is only nothing.

Falling.

Release.

There’s no way back, Child.

You crossed that threshold long ago when you asked for this.

Don’t try to resurrect yourself. You’ve come this far.

Now go all the way.

Stories That Change The World #15 – Letter to Beth Moore

My heart was broken on Sunday as a (queer) couple, who, along with their 4-yr-old foster son, had only recently started to call Four Creeks home, wept upon hearing we were shutting down. We were the only church in their lifetime that had seen and embraced them as sacred and loved humans…period. Hopefully they’ll continue to find connection and life with us as we transition to meet together and grow as family in each others’ homes. Love is supreme. Everything else has been stripped away, and for that I am so thankful. I beg you, brothers and sisters, to allow the false god of indoctrination and the celebrity voices that peddle it to be stripped away so that you can see and hear for yourself. Start by hearing people’s stories.

Serendipitydodah

Stories have the power to change the world … they inspire us, teach us, connect us.This is the fifteenth installment in the “Stories That Change The World” series.

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Winter is Coming

Winter is coming. Those damn Starks have been telling us so forever, but we grew tired of hearing it and dismissed them as crying wolf (insert GOT fan groan).

But winter is coming, and it’s coming for me, so I might as well go out with all the drama and flare of a butchered Jon Snow…bleeding out, lying motionless, fading to black.

In my physical world, it is autumn, which in central California means this morning was the first time my kids and I broke out a light sweater to walk to school with a predicted high temp of 79…may the gods, old and new, sustain us.

Autumn, however muted in this part of the country, still retains an element of anticipation and haunting beauty as a prelude to death; a transitional season leading us out of one extreme and into another. There’s a whisper in the (ever so slightly chilled) air saying, “Winter is coming.

Surely I hail from the House of Stark as I’ve known winter was coming for me for a long time. It is now right on my doorstep and there is nothing left but to welcome it in.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END

For once I can’t blame my swollen red eyes on seasonal allergies. I’ve been sobbing intermittently and quite uncontrollably for 3 days. I finally crashed hard last night, dropping at 8:30 and sleeping like a dead person until 6 a.m. I woke up feeling refreshed for a nice change. I had a pleasant morning together with the Banshees, and as we stepped outside to begin our walk to school I thought, “It’s going to be alright. Your life is so good. You’ve got this.”

Then Joseph, our little Random Man, blurted out for no good reason, “I can’t wait for church. How many days until Sunday?” The instant lump in my throat kept me from answering. Liberty did the math for him and said, “Yeah, I love church.”

With that, an icy blast of arctic air just about knocked my spirit on its ass. Winter is coming.

“Guys, would you be really sad if I told you that we were going to have to stop doing church?”

“YES!” they both wailed in unison. JoJo saw a roly poly and immediately lost interest, but Libby honed in, “Why do we have to stop going to church?”

“Well honey, not enough people want to come and we don’t have any more money left.”

Without skipping a beat, “We can just go to another church. How about that big one we’ve gone to before? There’s lots of people there.”

I would have preferred being punched hard in the face at that moment rather than answer her.

BLEEDING OUT

My babies have absolutely no concept of the conflict and hardship we’ve endured, as it should be. Our own church had very little idea as it just wasn’t appropriate for us to burden them that way. That’s why I turned to writing. It was my one and only release to keep me from drowning in the bitterness and resentment.

But what to tell my daughter who was asking me why we couldn’t just go back to what she calls “fun church”? Her only real memory of that place was using the facilities for training groups a few Sunday nights a couple years ago. It was big and had stuff and she got to play (as opposed to small and has stuff and she gets to play at Four Creeks).

How do you tell your child that the man who took her and each of her siblings as infants into his arms to pray over and dedicate them to God had disparaged and disowned her parents? How do you tell her that the congregation who had promised that day to nurture and support her and us as a family had done the same?

All I could think to say was, “Oh no sweetie, I would never go back there. They didn’t like us. They didn’t want us.”

My mind raced ahead trying to think of how I would answer what I thought would be the inevitable next question – why?

Instead, after mulling this new information over for a few seconds, she said, “Well, at least there wasn’t a war.”

My freakishly wise and wonderful 8-year-old made an important observation. There was conflict, but there was no war. We had been purposeful in that from the beginning. We’d initially gone silently like lambs to slaughter. When I eventually did start talking it was in an attempt to salvage relationships and my own sanity. I was spectacularly unsuccessful on both counts.

We’d declined a war out of love for both churches by sacrificing ourselves as the only casualties, and I’ve been severely walking wounded ever since

“You’re so right Libby. There was no war, but I was very hurt and I still hurt very much.”

“What?! Someone hit you?!”

“No, honey. My feelings were hurt.”

“Oh. Well then let’s go find another church that’s fun and doesn’t hurt.”

And I lost it. Done. Stick a fork in me (or a half dozen daggers). Finito. Roll credits.

WINTER HAS COME

With the exception of my college prodigal years (I was wiser than I knew then), for the first time in my life I’m going to be without a church, and I’m not going to try to find one – not as long as we live in this town, anyway. I just can’t fathom any church, as Libby said, that is “fun and doesn’t hurt.” Four Creeks was the type of church that I would have given my right arm to be a part of…and I ended up losing much more than that. I understand why so few would even touch or acknowledge it/us, and it’s OK. It really is. This is a good death and I go into it willingly and without a fight. This part of my life needs to completely die. I’ve been in this process for such a long time, and I’m so very tired and ready for the release.

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels–a plentiful harvest of new lives.

Winter has come for me. I have no idea what the duration of this season will be, and it really doesn’t matter. It will be what it will be. Spring will come when it comes. New life will come as it is God-breathed. My only task for right now is to die for a little while.

From the beginning, it was always leading up to this –

Father, forgive us because we just don’t understand what we’re doing.

Into your hands I commit my spirit.

It is finished.

Any Which Way But Jesus – Live From Israel

So first things first – TECHNOLOGY!! I don’t know ’bout the rest of ya’ll, but I’m old enough to remember life without the internet. As a kid I remember thinking how cool it would be if we could talk to people remotely with video screens like they did on the Jetsons (and pretty much anything set in the future). I’m ready for teleportation now, please…that and I want to go back and experience college with internet, cellphones, apps and laptops.
As my oldest two children have been off rockin’ their first years of college out in Nashville, I’ve talked to them more regularly (and intimately) and have literally seen more of what goes on in their lives than when we were all under the same roof thanks to texting, Snapchat, Instagram and video chat. We even have our own private family Facebook group on which they occasionally post to humor their old mom and dad.So you can imagine my delight yesterday morning being able to video chat with my daughter who is half way around the world studying abroad in Israel, Turkey and Greece.I knew she was headed for a monumental broadening of her perception, and I was even pretty sure at what point it would happen. What I didn’t expect was the gift of being right there with her in it as it happened. Thank you, technology, for allowing me to be with my girl as she processed an intense spiritual/life epiphany…and thank you, God, for a daughter who wanted/needed her mother to be with her in that moment.

Us Dickensons are weird like that. We dig the profound and personal and often turn to each other when the rest of life seems determined to stay solidly entrenched in the cheap and artificial. That’s how we’ve always functioned and survived as a family of faith in ministry.

WALKING IN JESUS’ FOOTSTEPS…MAYBE

When my daugher’s lovely face magically appeared on the device I held in my hand (seriously people, where is my flying car?), it was instantly obvious to me as her mother; she was diving deep into something that was going to take some work to be able to articulate.

“So…*sigh*” our conversation began, “we’re on what…day 5 of this trip? It feels like it’s been 5 weeks.”

Kathryn went on to say how much she loved her new friends and traveling companions, the leaders and the tour guides and what a great time she was having…but…she was realizing an accelerated shift in her understanding was happening and she would never again be the same from this point going forward.

“Aaaaaand…I have to somehow write my experience down in this.” she said as she held up the daily journal the students are required to write in for the course. I smiled and nodded and gave her the space to try and verbalize it.

The first few days had been spent hitting all the main touristy “holy” sites. Though it’s absolutely impossible to say with any certainty, here’s where Jesus may have actually walked. Here’s the spot where St. Peter may have lived. Here’s the spot where Jesus may have performed such and such a miracle. Here is the traditional spot where it’s said the angel Gabriel visited the virgin Mary. What is certain is that there are ornate churches and gift shops built on each and every one of those traditional sites that are a source of major tourism revenue for the country. You can eat what Jesus probably ate, buy souvenirs made from the wood from the types of trees Jesus talked about and vials of Jordan river water and anointing oils to bring back home and pour over the heads of the devout as a special blessing (i.e. God will surely answer our prayers because we’re using authentic Holy Land bling). Jesus, the tourist attraction, is very, very popular and lucrative.

It was while visiting the Jordan River that Kathryn really wrestled. There’s a traditional baptismal site complete with steps and guardrails where annually thousands of Christian pilgrims go to be immersed in the same waters in which Jesus was baptized. Though many of her companions took the plunge, Kathryn ultimately opted not to.  She did post this pic though which clued me in to what she was thinking and feeling even before she called to talk to me.

Look Mom, I’m standing in the Jordan River

“Everywhere we’ve gone has been historically fascinating, but not particularly spiritually significant for me. At all these traditional holy sites, the group seems to be having these emotionally-charged, spiritually cathartic moments…or maybe everybody’s pretending…I don’t know…I just know I’m not.”

*fist pump*      THAT’S OUR GIRL!
Where she did find spiritual and even a physical connection to Jesus via her 5 senses was away from the crowds and the tradition in a quiet and pristine spot on the banks of the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum.

In all likelihood, Kathryn was indeed seeing what Jesus saw as she participated in his regular practice of retreating in silence and solitude in an area where he was known to have spent a lot of time building significant relationships.

WWJS?

I think the most significant question we could possibly ask ourselves in terms of what it means to be like Christ is –

What would Jesus see?…or more accurately, but doing away with the WWJ (and can we agree that just needs to die anyway?) – HOW would Jesus see the world, my world, my experiences, my life right now?

What would his take be on the relationships in my family? What would his attitude be towards the myriad of interconnected and clashing cultures and their politics today? What would his attitude be toward my neighbor? What would his attitude be toward my enemy? Who would he see as “the least of these” today? What would Jesus think about the booming tourism business bearing his name? What would Jesus think about the church and modern religious traditions also bearing his name? How would Jesus see the present Israeli/Palestinian conflict?

BURSTING THE BUBBLE

Kathryn was fully aware she’d been born and raised within an American Christianity bubble, and she knew it was going to burst in cataclysmic fashion on this trip. I not only knew it would happen, but upon looking at the trip itinerary, I knew exactly when – day 5, when they would cross the security border into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Oh sure, there was yet another “traditional” site to visit in Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity, that was absolutely not maybe the exact location of Jesus’ birth. Ornate church – check. Gift shop with an assortment of Virgin Mary and sweet baby Jesus tchotchkes –check. 

But that certainly wasn’t the part of day 5 that rocked my girl’s world into another dimension. No. All it took was to simply cross the checkpoint. Once you cross over to the other side of the wall, all the preconceived notions and indoctrination from your American Evangelical Christian culture about “those people” and what they believe and represent evaporates as does whatever narrative you’ve been led to believe from the American media.

Well, I suppose it doesn’t for everybody…but for those with eyes to see…and my girl has always had gorgeous eyes, sharply focused on lovely and mysterious things.  She saw very clearly for the first time in her 20 years what life looked like outside the tarnished bubble, and it was –

Gut wrenchingly beautiful, heartbreaking, joyful, impossible, inspiring, frustrating beyond all description, hopeful beyond all description.

What was being birthed in her that day was unadulterated and unencumbered compassion…she was seeing exactly as Jesus does. This was a baptism of Spirit that a dunk in the Jordan couldn’t have begun to touch.

“Mom, I knew I was going to be changed on this trip. I knew being exposed to other cultures and seeing things for myself outside of books and what others have told me was going to expand my perceptions…but…but…”  She trailed off not being able to find adequate words.

And what exactly was responsible for such radical transformation and epiphany? Seeing and hearing people and their reality and touching it for herself. That’s entirely it. Their stories, their experiences, their families, their hopes, their dreams, their despair, their fears, their anger, their joy, their culture and individual expression.

Holy crap! (surely that too must be for sale, if you find it, Kafafrin, you know I want need). Contrary to everything she’d been led to believe, Kathryn found Jesus hanging out on the Palestinian side of the graffiti-plastered barrier.  Who woulda thunk it? (well, besides me…I totally called it).

“I mean, I know that discrimination, distrust and dehumanizing exists everywhere, but it’s so concentrated in this place.”

Oh it most certainly is…every bit as much as when Jesus walked in all those places where you are now.  You, my girl, are truly seeing. Now to start walking into those undesirable places where you see love leads…into messy lives, holding nothing of yourself back, with no personal agenda or expectation…only open invitation.  Love leads you to simply BE Jesus in the moment in connection with other broken humans, shedding the indoctrination and tradition in order to see them (and very much yourself) as Jesus sees.

I thought I couldn’t be any more proud of this woman or marvel any deeper that I had anything to do with her being in this world. Now I know better. I will never cease to be amazed, inspired, and encouraged by her. The only thing I will ever want for any of my children is for them to have eyes to see and ears to hear and the courage to follow where love leads. Falling on my face tonight in tears and awe that I got to “see” her baptism live from Israel.

Mixed Messages

I’m sure everyone can relate to parts of this regardless of gender. It’s not about any specific people or situations, just a composite of mixed messages I’ve received over my lifetime as a female. It’s been quite the task to undo a lifetime of conditioning and learn to listen to the only voice that gets to tell me who I AM. God declares that I am inherently very good.  But in the eyes of most humans (many times myself included), I have to attain and maintain these things in order to be acceptable:

  • Be pretty. No, be prettier, whatever you have to do at all times to be prettier…unless we feel intimidated and want to justify indulging our own insecurities or we’re just not in the mood to exercise any self control or basic kindness, and then it’s on you for showing off too much pretty. Be just attractive enough to where it’s effortless for us to like you without any of the hard work of actually knowing you and respecting you.
  • Be smart, but don’t you dare think. Always work to be smarter, but do not show us just how smart you are ’cause, ya know, that intimidation thing again. You want to be liked, don’t you?  Use your smarts to figure out how to show just enough smarts without being too smart and you’ll be fine. Don’t ever expect us to work to understand you. Dumb it down for us without making it look like you’re dumbing it down for us. Here, we’ll help you by putting you down, then as you’re scraping yourself off the floor everyone can see you having to come up to our level. There’s a smart girl now.
  • Be bold and courageous. Come on honey, come out of your shell and show us the real you…except when it’s challenging in any way, then you’re just a bitch.
  • Be honest. We applaud this wonderful virtue, except when you expose parts of you that aren’t pretty or are (again) too smart or too vulnerable.  Some of that spotlight might accidentally get on the rest of us, threatening to expose our dark and messy places. We can’t have that now, darlin’. Yes, be honest, but learn to recognize when it starts to become inconvenient or uncomfortable for us and then be a good girl and STFU.
  • Work hard. We’re perfectly happy to take every last drop of your soul, just start pouring and don’t ever stop. We’ll dictate to you exactly what and exactly how and when we dump a shovelful of shit on your head, we expect you to smile and accept our criticism like a shower of rose petals. We’ll think you’re wonderful (if we think of you at all) as long as you remain that steady, quiet, compliant worker bee and keep producing for us. But the minute you trip or fall or die and can’t any more? Well, that’s on you, stupid girl. Shame on you for not being enough to meet our expectations for you and not having what it takes to stand up under the weight of all we projected on you.

Challenge us or make us uncomfortable in any way and we can instantly paint you into the ugly, stupid, arrogant, frigid, ungrateful bitch we need you to be. One word. One second. That’s all we need. Remember that.

Now go be the pretty, smart, courageous, industrious woman of integrity God intended you to be!

Or else.

Jimmy and Jennifer – A Beautiful Rowdy Love Story

This is the most painfully honest and transparent piece of writing I’ve done and is the most difficult chapter of my life to share. My marriage has been the source of the greatest heartache and disappointment as well as the greatest joy in my life. I suppose that’s not so unusual as many couples can probably say the same thing, but Jimmy and I together are kinda peculiar, and nobody is more delightfully aware of it than we are. It’s a long story, so you’re really going to have to care in order to get through it. I included some pictures to up the entertainment value.  

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I don’t usually tend to think in terms of God planning out every detail of a person’s life or that there was ever “THE ONE” out there for me or anybody else. I don’t pretend to know how God works out an individual’s free will versus His sovereignty nor do I think I have a shot at understanding it in this lifetime, but I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion when it came to me and Jimmy that He did indeed decide it was an absurdly good idea for us to be together and used some remarkable circumstances not only to get us together but to keep us that way…just a suspicion.

We don’t make sense on paper. Jimmy is not only an out-of-the-box kind of thinker, the box doesn’t even exist as far as he’s concerned. To him the world is a limitless expanse of possibilities to explore, in which to take risks and find adventure. Want to drive him crazy? Force him into a mindless routine.  Me? I love the box. Gimme the box. The box is safe, defined, peaceful and predictable. Want to make me happy? Gimme a mindless routine. We’re both also on the lowest end of the spectrum on empathy and touchy-feeliness or what the assessors on a personality test called “low emotional intelligence.” (We’ve had way too much fun with that label, it obviously didn’t hurt our feeling). It’s easy to see where the tension in our relationship lies; my strong, strong desire for safety and security and his strong, strong desire to dream and take risks towards reaching a grand goal, and neither one of us naturally tuned in to anyone’s feelings and wants besides our own. So how did such an unlikely match happen? Once upon a time…

GRIZZLY HUNTING

In the spring of 1990 Jimmy and I were both attending Pt. Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. The campus is AMAZINGLY beautiful, every evening a front row seat to a sunset on the water, gorgeous venues everywhere, just add college kids and you have a recipe for a LOT of hooking up. As most of my friends were trying to get in on the dating frenzy, I was purposely avoiding it. I was still working through personal grief from events that had occurred several months earlier, and a romantic relationship was the last thing that interested me or seemed appropriate at the time. I had 3 incredible roommates freshman year who had stood by me through that tragic time and provided welcome relief and distraction. As hard as that year was, it was also the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. One night when half the girls in our unit were piled into our room (of course we were talking about boys) someone started playfully giving me a hard time about not having been out on a date. I told them I could if I wanted to, just didn’t want to. Don’t remember the details anymore, but the gist was I got challenged to prove it by getting someone to ask me out. I didn’t have anybody in mind so I told my roomies to pick somebody. The girls decided my target would be Grizzly Adams, AKA Jimmy Dickenson. Jimmy stood out, WAY out, from the Ned Nazarenes as he was rockin’ the 80s hair band look. Though I had seen him quite a bit before (he was hard to miss) we had only just recently met in a class we had together. Grizzly Adams seemed a perfect target if the goal was just a date and not a relationship. He was really cute but not somebody I’d normally be interested in and nothing about this could possibly be taken seriously…so what the heck, I was in the mood to take a vacation from being reasonable, step out of character, and live a little.


Turned out Grizzly hunting was pretty easy. Didn’t take much more than sitting by him in class, making conversation, giving a little extra attention to how I dressed, and with the help of a half dozen girlfriend conspirators, knowing when he’d be at the library, cafeteria, etc. so I would “just happen” to be there too. Maybe two weeks into the operation, I got my date. Jimmy knew nothing about me, I knew nothing about him. He had no idea what I had experienced in the last year. He had no idea the entire time we were at dinner and a movie I was feeling twinges of guilt and second-guessing as to whether even this innocent date was too much too soon. As he brought me back to my dorm that night I had decided ahead of time to give a quick “thanks, I had fun” and jump out of the car to avoid turning down what any normal guy would be expecting at the end of a date. I had my hand on the door handle ready to go when Jimmy just flat out asked if he could kiss me. It’s going to sound ridiculous, but this is the truth of what happened in my head in that split second. As I was taking a breath to say “no” in the nicest way possible, another voice in my head said loud and clear, “If you say no, you will regret it” along with a gut feeling that somehow I knew that was the truth. So, despite common sense, despite what anybody else who knew my story would think, despite the fact that this boy had no idea of the significance of this kiss to me, I said “yes”. After we kissed (a VERY good one by the way), as he looked at me and smiled his gorgeous dimpled smile, that same voice in my head said, “You are going to marry him.”

Jimmy drove off back to his dorm, I’m sure thinking “Wooohoo!” As soon as he drove out of sight (at exactly the same location where I had said a fateful goodbye and had a last kiss months earlier) I sat down on the curb and bawled my eyes out. The conflicting emotions were overwhelming. Thank God for those girls waiting back in the dorm who knew and understood it all. Long after the fact I asked Jimmy what would have happened if I had said no. He said that probably would have been the end of our story.

YOUNG AND STUPID 

If you read Exodus From Church World: Chapter 1 you’d see that at this point in life I had been experiencing a crisis of faith, doubting whether the Christian God I’d grown up with my whole life was real. The events earlier in the year had shaken me out of my doubt about God’s existence, but this certainly didn’t translate into love and trust on my part. In my shocked, numb state I came to the conclusion that God was going to do whatever God was going to do, no matter what I did. I was back to seeing no point in trying to pursue and maintain a relationship with God. Besides, all focus was on Jimmy now through rose colored glasses and I was still very much enjoying my vacation from reason and just going with whatever felt good and made me happy. I was aware I had flipped the switch off, I just didn’t want to care any more. It didn’t take long for the both of us to be stupid in love…really stupid.  After only 7 months, a big chunk of which we weren’t even together over the summer, we got engaged. My poor family and friends back home didn’t know what to think. They didn’t know this guy. I didn’t honestly know this guy, and at 19 years old I didn’t even know who I was yet. My poor mom was completely blind sided and not feeling good about the situation in the least, but to her credit, she didn’t try to talk me out of it but supported us and got to work planning a wedding. Looking back now, knowing my mom, knowing how crazy quick and thoughtless we were, the fact that she didn’t try to talk me out of it or beat me over the head with a heavy object to knock some sense into me is a miracle in and of itself.

Six months out from our official wedding we jumped in the car with our closest friends and former roomies and headed to Vegas, and on my 20th birthday we secretly got married. Why? Coudn’t tell ya, other than it seemed like a fun, tacky thing to do at the time. I went back to my dorm to finish out the rest of the school year and then back home for the summer before the “real” wedding.

HOUSTON, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

When my daughter Kathryn hears these stories, she says in disbelief, “That just doesn’t sound like you, Mom.” Exactly. I was in love with someone who didn’t have a playbook, plan (or box) to live by. I was willing to go along with whatever he wanted, however he wanted because we were in love. Even though I was willing to act out of character so much in our dating and engagement year (yes just one, in fact less than one if you count Vegas), I carried an extremely naive (stupid) notion that once we were (really) married we would instantly start to function as the secure, stable, responsible, balanced couple that had been modeled to me by my own parents and grandparents, that we would work hard for the first few years and then start making some babies and I’d be living my dream of being a wife and mother. Might have helped if we’d had even one discussion about our expectations of marriage. I really didn’t see the need. That picture of marriage and family was all I knew and I figured it would just happen automatically. It was a most crucial and unfortunate time for both of us as individuals to have turned away from God and give in completely to what was making us happy for the moment, even if it was something as wonderful as intense, romantic love.  

September 1, 1991, we were “officially” married in a nice, respectable ceremony. I look at our wedding album of lovely pictures now and can’t really be very nostalgic. While anybody else probably sees a fairytale looking couple, I see two ignorant, selfish idiots who had no clue of the hell they were about to go through.

The let down was immediate. Consistent with Jimmy’s personality, dreaming about and achieving the goal of GETTING married was exciting and kept his focus; maintaining and enriching something already achieved, not so much. BEING married was all about maintenance and I was very much looking forward to settling in. Disappointment set in quickly as Jimmy switched gears and focus to his job as a restaurant manager. The business was 40 minutes away from our apartment. He left early in the morning and came home late at night and eventually even stopped taking any days off. I was finishing up my last 2 years of college and also working some part time jobs. I was lonely and miserable but convinced myself things would change once I graduated or once Jimmy had built the business up enough to scale back his hours so we’d have time for each other. 

To say I was naive would be the understatement of the century. Looking back now, it was blatantly obvious, but at the time I had no clue that my husband was using methamphetamine to enable him to work incessantly. I couldn’t conceive of being with someone where drug use would even be a possibility. It was nowhere on my radar. Strange behavior and odd things found were always explained away and I was naturally inclined to trust him. There were even nights when he didn’t come home at all with no answers to my frantic pages and phone calls. If it wasn’t so sad it would be laughable what I was willing to believe. I knew things were terribly, terribly dark and wrong but didn’t know why, and pride kept me from talking about any of my disappointment or doubts to friends or family.  Upon graduation, turning to family and friends was no longer even an option. Every friend moved out of state, as did my entire family; parents, sisters, and grandparents. My social circle and support network was suddenly at zero and Jimmy’s now consisted of an odd group of troubled kids that he’d met through work.

Everything came to a head when I found a note from a girl to Jimmy that was alarmingly inappropriate. When I confronted him, to my shock he started spilling about his meth use. Maybe that was to deflect my questioning of his relationship to this girl. If so, it worked. Suddenly whether or not he had fooled around on me was just one part of a huge web of deception and betrayal. It was all lies, it was all infidelity – it was all devastating. All I could think to say was “You have to stop or I have to leave,” to which he coldly said, “Then I guess you have to go.” Then came the screaming, kicking, punching, biting (all me). Had I known anything, I wouldn’t have risked physically attacking a meth head as they are notoriously violent. Thankfully he had enough control not to hurt me back. Over the next few days a closet door and a car window wouldn’t be so lucky. 

ROCK BOTTOM

If there had been anywhere to go that didn’t require a plane ticket and a LOT of explaining, I would have been out of there in a heartbeat, but at that point admitting to my family that I was married to a lying, cheating meth addict seemed worse than staying put until I could figure out what to do. Jimmy lost his job and took off with our only car. I had no idea where he’d gone or if he’d be back. For two days I stayed locked up in the apartment, lying on the floor, paralyzed and completely cried out. All I could do was question over and over, “How did I get here? How did this happen?” The only thing I had ever really wanted out of life was to be a wife and mother. At the ripe old age of 22 I had to accept that my dreams and my marriage were dead. I thought about the safety, security and love of my family and my childhood and couldn’t believe how far away I had gotten and how fast. I thought back to the purest and most honest moment of my life – a little girl sitting in the sunshine making daisy chains asking Jesus to come into her heart. Oh God, what happened to her? I desperately needed to be that little girl again. The 6-year-old me had a far better handle on life and faith than the 22-year-old me.

The telephone rang and I probably jumped a foot off the floor. I figured it was Jimmy calling to tell me where he was. Nope.

“Hello?”

“Jen, it’s Mom.” (Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap…should I tell her everything? If I do I’ll have a plane ticket in hand by tomorrow and this can all be over).

“Hi mom, what’s up?”

“Are you OK?”

“Sure, I’m fine, why?” (How I pulled that off without breaking I’ll never know)

“You’ve been incredibly heavy on my heart all day and I just can’t shake the feeling of needing to urgently pray for you. Are you sure you’re okay?”

I don’t remember any of the rest of the conversation, but somehow I got out of it having convinced my mother everything was fine. I just knew now was not the time to pull the plug. (Mom, I’m going to assume you’re reading this. I can never say I love you enough or too often. You didn’t know it, but you were instrumental in saving our family).

I hung up the phone and hit the floor again, this time feeling as though I’d been shocked back to life. That phone call from my mom was God confirming to me He was there. I was not alone. There was hope. It was going to be OK even if Jimmy never came back. At that moment I wasn’t even thinking about Jimmy. I was having a long overdue reunion with my Father who adored me even as I had spent years stubbornly running and pushing Him away. The second I made the slightest honest move back in His direction, He ran the rest of the way to catch me in His arms. I am the prodigal child.

DO OVER

Later that day Jimmy walked through the door and said, “It’s over.” I thought, “Alright, let’s make it official. What’s today’s date so I can call the time of death?”  Jimmy could tell what I thought he meant, “No, I’m done with the drugs, done with this place. Let’s go to Blythe.” Apparently Jimmy’s best friend from back in the day had recently become a Christian. He’d heard through the rumor mill the trouble Jimmy was in and gave his brother a call. He told Jimmy to drop everything and come back to his home town in the middle of the desert where he’d give us a place to live rent free until we could get back on our feet.

Also true to Jimmy’s character, there was no transitioning when it came to coming off the drugs. He knew what he had to do and did it, cold turkey. It was done. A week later we drove through the desert in the middle of the night in stunned silence, our little Ford Escort stuffed to the roof with everything we owned. We were leaving one of the most beautiful cities where we had experienced personal hell and escaping to a little town that most people equate with hell to start over. The irony was never lost on us.

First weeks were hard, but nothing compared to what we had just come from. I was too shell shocked to be anything but stunned and grateful for another shot. I still didn’t know if Jimmy and I were going to ultimately make it, there were still selfish indulgences to work through, but I did know my crisis of faith was over for good. We started attending the little Nazarene church Jimmy had grown up in. It took Jimmy probably six more months before he honestly and wholeheartedly turned around and had his own tearful reunion with his Father. Now it was time for the prodigals’ welcome home party!


All those personality traits (for both of us) that worked together to create such a mess when we were operating out of our selfishness were now our greatest strengths when operating in submission to God. The 8 years we spent in that hellishly hot little town in the middle of nowhere were some of the happiest of our lives. I had a husband who put all his passion and energy into living with integrity and providing for his wife and family. My dream of being a mother became a blissful reality with Kathryn and Ryan. Jimmy acknowledged his calling to be a minister. He was a few years off track, but remember that no box thing? He and God have that in common. That little bitty church in that little bitty town was the beginning of some big stuff.  Reveling in a genuinely happy and healthy marriage and two incredible little humans we’d brought into the world, I didn’t care to ever remember or dwell on how we had started. On the occasion I would think back, it was all I could do to keep from falling on my face and thanking God for bringing us out of it. I remember finding it remarkable that I didn’t struggle with harboring resentment towards Jimmy. I was too busy being happy and content with what I had.

MID LIFE CRISIS

Fast forward a few years to a time when my comfort and security were shaken, and the scars from the past started to show. We had taken a big leap of faith and left a secure career and house in Blythe to move to L.A. for Jimmy to go into full time ministry. Within the first two months of moving, the situation we thought we were getting ourselves into completely disintegrated and became something we had never anticipated. Now working a full time job, trying to afford housing, ensuring our kids’ well being, and the constant underlying current of stress and instability in the church situation left me feeling anything but safe and content. At the height of the stress I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease (see I Heart Crohn’s Disease for the details of that saga). None of this is what I had pictured for myself in my early 30s. I found myself wanting to escape by reminiscing about earlier, carefree times when I was in my 20s…wait a minute, there weren’t any. I had given up the typical fun 20-something single experience to be married. Well, at least that trade off was worth it…wait a minute, no it wasn’t! My newlywed experience was thoroughly dreadful. I felt cheated out of a chunk of life and youth that I could never go back to reclaim. Even though Jimmy was now an incredibly strong, trustworthy, godly man, being hitched to this guy and the way he was wired, especially the life of a pastor, was going to mean a lifetime of instability and uncertainty – a statement that those who have been in ministry can truly appreciate.

I knew it was irrational, I knew it was wrong, but it was at that point years after the fact that I found myself struggling with resentment towards Jimmy. There was no way I was going to tell him. He was, and had been for years, choosing to be the kind of man every woman should be so blessed to have as a husband, working hard, being supportive of me in my struggles while maintaining integrity in the face of immense personal stress of his own.

I had a lot of hours in the day in my own head working alone at home while kids were at school and Jimmy was at work. I was stuck in life circumstances that were very unpleasant, I had pain and resentment in my present and past and I was convinced there was no pleasure to look forward to in the future.  To compensate and escape, I started spending time in my head in a fantasy, one that explored what life would have been like if I had never married Jimmy. I took it a step farther and imagined what life would have been like had I married another man, someone who represented security and stability. I was lusting after pleasure I felt I’d been denied. Though it wasn’t overtly sexual, it was lusting just the same, longing for something that was outside the confines of my marriage. The fact that it took place entirely in my head didn’t make it any less of an infidelity. I only deliberately indulged the fantasy for a short time. I knew what a monster it could grow into that would inevitably break out and wreak havoc in my real world if I kept feeding on it. But in that short time, my brain had hardwired a quick and easy path that led there and it was most appealing in times of stress and discomfort. I’d have spurts when it wasn’t anywhere on the radar and other days 20 times in a day I’d have to force my brain to switch gears and tune it out. “Jen, come hang out with me, just for a minute. I miss you and I know you miss me.”

The next phase in our life was our move to Visalia in 2005. Coming out of the pressure cooker experience, life suddenly smoothed out and came together on every level.  I even started to entertain whether or not we should have more kids, something I’d wanted for a long time but with the insanity of the previous years was a dream I’d let go of. My evil brain buddy wasn’t as persuasive and loud, but it still hung out in the background calling to me. One day (while working) I let my brain indulge, not in fantasizing about life with another man but in remembering the worst moments of betrayal and abandonment from our early life together. As I was feeling the hurt and anger, two thoughts dawned on me.

1). I’d been married to Jimmy for 14 years and still didn’t know for sure if he had cheated on me. I’d just always assumed it.

2). He’d never directly apologized to me.

I was aware of that unanswered question and lack of an apology in the beginning, I just didn’t think I needed it or that knowing or hearing those words would have made any difference at that time. The only thing I wanted then was proof of love in action, and Jimmy came through for me brilliantly in that regard.  Now, so many years later, I realized I did need those words.

Crap.

I knew how hard having this discussion was going to be on Jimmy. His thoughts only go one direction; forward. The past, no matter how good, bad or dramatic, just doesn’t factor in to his thinking. He’s always focused on what he needs to do to get to what’s next. So drudging up the past and me laying out in detail all the complicated mess that had roiled around inside me for so long made for a rough, emotional day for the both of us. I got an honest, one-word answer to my question (which really was all I needed) and a heartfelt, if somewhat bewildered, apology from my sweet husband.

The years since we had that discussion have been transformative for our family and our relationship in every way. We obviously decided to go for more kids (best and craziest decision we ever made aside from getting married in the first place). Jimmy and I are truly together in every sense of the word. Our individual personalities have smoothed out and are continually morphing more and more into a single oneness. That sounds kinda kooky metaphysical, but that’s the best way I can describe it.  I honestly think we are living up to the fullness of what God intended for marriage, although it’s an active process and not a destination.

And guess what I’ve found as we continue to press forward to live up to what God intended for us? Safety, security and contentment; the things I’m wired to crave. It’s not found in life’s circumstances by any means. Just when I think there’s no way to juggle another plate, another one comes flying in. Planting Four Creeks Church has been an experience marked by uncertainty and intense hardship, yet it’s the lessons learned through trial by fire over the years that have prepared us to move forward to do this impossible thing together

As for evil brain buddy, he’s still there. Like I said, it’s a permanent hardwired connection. You can’t un-think a thought once you’ve thunk it. He’s just not even remotely attractive to me anymore. He’s a sad, weak little troll. On the rare occasion that I notice him, it makes for another opportunity to fall on my face and thank God all over again for loving His prodigal girl. My welcome home party has been, and continues to be, quite the lavish affair.

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