From Burial To Banqueting Table

A while ago, a man I considered to be quite wise at the time said to me “People change, but not that much.” I didn’t know quite what to make of that, probably because the person who said it was actually our pastor. Maybe he was a bit jaded. Maybe it was time for a new job. In any case, I didn’t believe him. I think people can change, in fact, I know they can. Maybe we need to invite our old pastor around to our place house for dinner one of these days.  He needs to see what God has done at my house.

Last Tuesday night, my husband Ben and I had guests for dinner. Fourteen people sat around our table and ate my lamb roast, including the two of us. A minor miracle occurred that night, but I think only I, and perhaps our children, really noticed it.  What happened was that Ben was present for the meal the whole time.  Of course, you’d have to know what it was like before to understand how this is different. Before, we didn’t invite folks over to our house for dinner. There was no point. If people came to visit, Ben would say hello, then remain present for about one minute and forty-five seconds after that before disappearing. I don’t know how he managed to convince himself that nobody notices when the host goes MIA, but then I’m not sure he ever considered his absences conspicuous to others. The fact is, regardless of if we had two people over, or twenty, Ben would always be a no show at his own dinner party.

You see, as far as social situations were concerned, Ben was a supreme master of the duck and weave. His avoidance of people and acute need to be alone was different from those occasions where he was simply busy, like in the shed fixing something, washing the car or going for a walk to get the newspapers. Our family had a pet name for it– skulking. Where’s dad? Skulking. Oh. I think the way Ben saw it, he was only out of the room for a few minutes. The problem was that he was only out of the room for a few minutes, twenty or more times a day – for about twenty years.

When Ben was skulking, he wasn’t just out of the room, on a special mission, or even busy. He wasn’t writing a thesis or building an ark in the back yard. He was hiding. From us. From everyone. And it hurt. When the person you’re married to can’t hang out with his wife and his kids and your friends and both your parents for any length of time without having to leave and be alone for a while, it’s difficult not to be offended. For a long time I thought it was my fault. Ben’s anti-social behaviour confirmed my own deep suspicion that I was just too much. I came to the sad conclusion my personality was so overwhelming that it made other people unable to function normally in society anymore. So I did what many women do when they blame themselves for their husbands’ faults – I covered for him. And when that grew tiresome – because explaining to guests that your husband has something very important to do out in the back yard while you are all sitting in his living room does grow tiresome – I just stopped inviting people over anymore.

While the hiding was a problem, it was never the problem, and while it wasn’t me that broke Ben, Ben was broken just the same. I understand now that when people are broken like Ben was and they feel they ought to be able to fix what’s wrong and put it all right but they just can’t, they do whatever it takes to feel safe. Often, they do what Ben did and they hide, in all kinds of places, and use all kinds of things to hide behind. Some people don’t physically hide like Ben did, but they are hiding all right. They hide behind their work, their possessions and positions, their success, and they even hide behind failure.

Far better men than Ben have been hiders. Adam, the very first man on the planet, was a hider.[1] As skulkers go, in my opinion, Adam wasn’t particularly good at it. I can say this because I’ve lived with a real pro. Adam gave in way too early for starters – he was only in those bushes for ten minutes, tops. I hate to brag, but Ben had far more stamina that that. And what’s with Adam taking an accomplice along for the skulk? Pros never take an accomplice. Any crime they committed may be a shared experience, but shame is always a solo venture. I suspect Adam was really only playing possum – I think Adam kind of wanted to be found.

While long-term hiding requires a lot of staying power, it can get kind of boring. While Ben was hiding, he found that smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol really helped to keep his hands busy. These also conveniently helped him to forget exactly how many hours a day he was actually spending skulking. I had my suspicions Ben skulked at work too, because whenever I rang to talk to him, nobody could ever find him. But I think it was the day I opened up some boxes under the house and hundreds of empty beer bottles fell out I realised I might have underestimated exactly how much of his life both his skulking, and the habits that kept him occupied while he was doing it, were consuming.

I didn’t understand for a long time exactly what Ben was so ashamed of, even after I worked out Ben was hiding. Ben is not and never has been a really bad man. He hasn’t been in any trouble with the police, or been unfaithful in our marriage. He is a gentle, patient father and has a quiet disposition. Ben’s wrongdoings are certainly no worse than any other simple mans, springing as they do from the common natural weaknesses and shortcomings of all human beings.  But I’ve come to understand that shame is not logical. It’s not circumstantial. Shame is not even natural. Shame wasn’t there at the beginning, when God created people. I mean they walked around without clothes for goodness sake. Shame was learned. Shame was a mutation. Shame was human invention, and it filled the place where something else used to be.

Relationship.

I imagine the first garden, its two occupants living in complete intimacy with each other and their creator. So guileless was the communion between the two humans they had nothing but their different skins to separate them. But then they did something they were told not to do by someone that loved them. Afterwards, the first thing they did was to go and make clothes to put on top of their skin. Don’t look at me. Then, forgetting that He had always been able to see them, they realised that not only could they be seen by each other, the creator could see them too. When they heard the creator coming, they hid behind some bushes. What’s happened to us? they asked themselves, we never worried about being seen before. 

The thing is, when the creator found out what they did, He didn’t demand they take off their clothes again, in fact, he turned around and made them both some better ones.

Ben – my sweet, gentle Ben – was not a bad person, but something inside him didn’t want to be seen. He thinks it started when he was very young. For the longest time Ben believed that God was a violent, iron-fisted Father, quick to anger and slow to forgive, particularly a very naughty boy like he was. After many years of just trying to stay out of God’s way, he found a way to hide that worked, and after a while he forgot what it was ever like to walk in the light.

When I became ill with cancer in 2003, Ben floundered with feelings of helplessness and depression, without any way to draw on the grace, strength and comfort from God or me he so desperately needed. He thought God was up there waggling his head, telling him to harden up and get a backbone. Ashamed of his inability to protect his family from harm, and from the consequences of his weakness in its aftermath, he pulled even further inside himself. If God had come calling “where are you?” Ben couldn’t have heard Him, because he was ensconced under the house with a cigarette and a six-pack of beer, medicating his despair.

After a few more years, things really fell to pieces. He lost his business, leaving us tens of thousands of dollars in debt. We had to leave town so Ben could get a new job. He became more disenfranchised from our children, the elder three of whom were now in their teens. The resentment between the two of us grew and festered between like a tumour. The last skerrick of Bens’ belief in himself disintegrated the same time as his desire to stay married to me. Desperate to save his life, I sent Ben away. By now, I was the only one of us with enough self-esteem left to survive being seen as the bad guy that broke up our marriage. Thank God, at that time a place in a Christian rehabilitation centre came up before Ben totally disintegrated.

In rehab, Ben learned to stay both literally and emotionally in the room with his shame, now compounded by the collapse of our family and the loss of everything he had and had been. All of the structures and devices he had created to keep himself safe were broken and useless. In that place of absolute vulnerability, Ben found his father God running towards him with His arms outstretched.

Finally, my boy, I’ve found you.

Since then, I have seen my husband rise up from a long sleep of self-hate and humiliation and sit up to God’s banqueting table. He is making a right pig of himself, I can tell you. The compassion I see in my husbands’ eyes these days, as he tells me about his wish to help the people God brings across his path, makes me fall back in wonder. How God can take a man who emptied himself out in self-disgust and fill him again with such goodness and compassion is beyond my comprehension.

Change is possible, I know it. I’ve seen shame, fear and guilt stunt a human soul into a crooked shadow of its former self, and then I saw that same human being raised up from the dead. Shame is fruitless, pointless in fact, particularly the shame we inflict upon each other. It’s only mercy that brings the withered ones stumbling forth for healing. The enemy wants us bound in the dark, wrapped in the rags of our self-loathing, but God wants us free in the light where He and the entire world can see us for who we really are.

I want to tell you, if you love someone that is dead while they live, don’t give up hope. People can change – more than you can even dream of. I thought Ben was gone forever, but I was wrong. He came back. Now I know Ben doesn’t like it when I brag about him, but I just can’t help myself. I doubt that anyone present for dinner on Tuesday night would have any real idea why I was gazing at Ben in wonder as he carved the lamb and cracked the jokes. There, I thought to myself, thanks to the grace of God, goes my husband – the most amazing man I have ever known.

*****

An excerpt from my new book God, You Can Take My Mental Illness, Just Not the Part Where You Speak To Me, now out on Amazon for Kindle.

*****


[1] Genesis 3:8 – 10

 

Lost Unto This World

You will not be able to do anything, whether or not you’ve been called, requested, conscripted, drafted, recruited, employed, compelled or fallen in to it, if your heart has not been moved in understanding what love has to do with it. It can be a dry, stupid, pointless task, but if your heart knows the family you love will eat tonight and sleep in shelter because you do this task, you will do it with passion. It may be uncomfortable, inconvenient, challenging, harder than anything you’ve ever done before or so close to the bone it brings you to tears every time, but if you see love going forward in you and in others because you do this thing, you won’t mind one bit. Your heart will tell you when something is for you, and when it does, you won’t care whether anyone else thinks it’s worth doing. You’ll be more alive than you’ve ever been doing that thing, knowing that the whole world is celebrating your having found what you were born for, and the whole world is better because you’ve been brave enough to do it.

*****

In January this year, Ben and I decided to move to Newcastle, about 400km away from the country town we’d lived in for several years. My greatest concern, over resettling the kids, was the fact I didn’t have a job to go to. I hadn’t actually worked a job for months, and certainly not a full time job for years. My most recent meaningful work experience had been in cancer supportive care, and I’d been facilitating a cancer support group as a volunteer for about a year. I had to start looking for a job – we would not be able to live off one income in Newcastle.

I started scanning job websites. And I started talking to God about it.

I’ll do whatever you want me to do.

Help people.

Okay. I can do that.

No jobs in any of the cancer organisations pending or forthcoming. Dang. I found lots of openings for case managers and support workers in youth, aged care and disabilities. The only drawback was that all required a qualification in social work. And I don’t have one.

I was still wondering what on earth I’d do for a job, when serendipitously I won two tickets on a competition website to see Emmylou Harris in Sydney. Amazing! More so because I’m not the hugest fan she’s ever had – I know she is a music legend but hardly knew any of her songs. But entering the competition was an inspiration – I knew my entry was good (it was one of those 25 words or less deals) but winning was a huge surprise. It felt meant-to-be. Excitedly, in the middle of packing up our house and freaking out because neither Ben nor I had jobs in Newcastle yet, I organised our weekend trip to Sydney to see Emmylou.

I suspected it was a divine arrangement, but I had no idea for what end.

Before we went to collect our tickets at the theatre, Ben and I found a small cafe on a corner a block or so away, directly opposite Sydney Town Hall. As we ordered our dinner and waited for our meal, we country folk watched as the big city happenings went on outside the window of the cafe. I became distracted by a young man begging near a statue of Queen Victoria just a few metres from where we were sitting. He was tall, slim, aged in his early twenties perhaps, and dressed in the ubiquitous army jacket and long, dirty pants. I was most fascinated by his hair; long, wild, curly, unkempt, ginger coloured hair, which, at the back, was flattened into a shiny, greasy dreadlocked panel which hung down his back past his shoulder blades, like a flap of thick, hairy leather. He was begging on the run; he never stopped moving or talking, walking up to people without seeing them, yattering unintelligibly as he approached with hands opened in front of him, veering away if they didn’t offer him anything from their pockets. He had no malice, nor appreciation in his expression. Whatever was going on behind those bright, unseeing eyes was locked inside his own head. He seemed both a child, and at the same time an old man. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. It was like there was no one else in the whole of Sydney that evening, no one but him.

I had to stop myself from visibly weeping. I felt so moved for him. Such a young man – what was his story? Where were his parents right now? He couldn’t be much older than our eighteen year old son. I thought of Levi, and thanked God I knew where he was right now, and that he was okay. I wondered if this boys mother knew he was here. The thought that she might know and could do nothing about it offered me scant comfort, as did the thought perhaps she hadn’t seen him like this, did not have any idea where her boy was right now.

So what was his story? Clearly he was not a well boy, perhaps schizophrenic. He’d also been homeless a while by the look of his clothes and his hair. That was months and months of dreadlocked hair hanging down his back. Was he mentally ill? How long had he been living this way, begging on the streets?

I found it hard to enjoy the meal. I decided I’d try to offer him something when we left, but just before dusk, just before we paid our bill, I glanced out and saw him pick up his backpack from the foot of the statue and make his way down the busy city street. Perhaps to a mens refuge, perhaps to a park to find shelter. We lost sight of him amongst the crowds. I closed my eyes and said a prayer for his safety and salvation. Salvation is a word we Christians over-use, a word few in this self-sufficient society really understand. Seeing this young man helped me remember there are still people who need saving.

We had prime seats at the State Theatre in Sydney, in the stalls just a dozen or so rows from the front. We were both so excited we were almost jumping up and down. When Emmylou appeared, it was like an angel had descended, her near-white hair like a halo. She seemed both small and magnificent to me; I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I needed to savour every delicious, exciting moment of it.

At one point, Ben and I turned to each other to look at each others eyes; I wanted to see if he was crying too, and he was – I could see he was feeling just what I was feeling. This was more than a musical experience – it was a spiritual one. Her songs were so simple and yet so deep, the stories so heartfelt. All undergirded by our awe of her legend. We’d never heard most of the songs before, and yet we felt like we already knew them all, word for word, line by line. Truth is truly universal.

And then I heard a song, one I’d never heard before, which changed me right there and then in my crimson faux velvet chair, forever. The first few lines pulled me forward in my seat, where I sat on the edge of my seat and held my breath for the remainder of the song. And I cried.

The words that captured my soul…..

“I was once some mother’s darlin’
Some daddy’s little girl
More precious than the ruby
More cherished than the pearl
My heart was full of mercy
And my forehead full of curl
Now I am nothing and am lost unto this world
I am lost unto this world…”

And the tears fell down my face.

“They herded me like cattle
Cut me down like corn
Took me from my babies
Before they could be born
You can blame it on the famine
You can blame it on the war
You can blame it on the devil
It don’t matter anymore
I am lost unto this world…

I was tortured in the desert
I was raped out on the plain
I was murdered by the high way
And my cries went up in vain
My blood is on the mountain
My blood is on the sand
My blood runs in the river
That now washes through their hands
I am lost unto this world…
Can I get no witness this unholy tale to tell?
Was God the only one there watching
And weeping as l fell?
O you among the living
Will you remember me at all?
Will you write my name out
With a single finger scrawl?
Across a broken window
In some long forgotten wall
That goes stretching out forever
Where the tears of heaven fall
I am lost unto this world…”

Oh my God. My God, I knew who she was singing about. I’d just seen a mothers son, just a few hours before, one of these children, lost unto the world. I wanted to sob out loud. My heart, my emotions, my mind just swept over with sorrow and anger and compassion. Lord! This is not a song of the past…this is a song of here and now. This is a song about orphans of this world, the lost, the disenfranchised, the ill, the homeless, the divorced, the rejected, the lonely, the alone.

We’d seen and lived with some of them, Ben and I, through the rehab where Ben had been for six months for treatment for alcoholism. Men lost to their families, men lost to their mothers and their fathers, men no longer husbands and sons and daddies because of their pain and their wounds, pain and wounds that dragged them to bars and to brothels, compelled them to spend the money that should have supported their families on booze and cigarettes and drugs. Broken men who broke their wives and broke their children. Empty women, wounded and hurt almost beyond repair, forgiveness a luxury given up for survival. And my husband had been one of those men, and I’d been one of those wives, and my children were some of those orphans. But for God’s grace. And here we sat, saved and restored and healed, remembering the ones we’d seen in the years before, and the one we’d seen moments ago, knowing that this was their song, this was their prayer. Our song. Our prayer.

On the train home, Ben and I could hardly speak for the weariness and joy we felt. “I think we just got us some churchin’.” Ben said, and I agreed.

A few days later, I found a job advertised for a mental health rehabilitation support worker in Newcastle. They wanted, so they said, not someone necessarily with a qualification, but “a certain type of person”. A person with compassion, a people person. I knew I was that person. I applied. And I got the job.

I truly believe that all the busted up stuff in our lives can be the foundation of what God has in mind for us. I now work every day with people whose lives have been railroaded and sometimes wrecked by mental illness, drugs and alcohol, and by the resulting relationships breakdowns and isolation. Sometimes, I leave their homes and drive away smiling, sometimes crying. It’s so hard. But I love it so much. What threatened to break me as a woman, a wife, mother and as a human, has become the platform on which I stand to strengthen and support and speak to others. I was diagnosed with a mental illness ten years ago, and I still don’t know how I have been able to progress through my life to this point with that as part of my life, let alone get through cancer, Ben’s alcoholism and our separation, whilst bringing up four children at the same time. Don’t know. You may say the things you’ve been through are evidence there is no God – people say this to me often – but I look at my life and I know the things I’ve been though would have broken me into a million pieces if not for God. I have no choice now. To deny Him is to deny my past, the miracles, everything I am and I stand for. He may not be understandable, but He is, nonetheless.

When I doubt I’m in the right place doing the thing I’m meant to be doing, I find myself stumbling across Emmylou’s song, and remembering that evening, and that young man. I couldn’t help him – but he helped me. He’ll never know that, and it diminishes the gravity and tragedy of his situation for me to say that’s the reason I saw him that evening. He was not helped, at least not be me, but I was helped to understand that I can make a difference, if I listen, and I obey that prompting. I am not one for just following my feelings everywhere they lead me, but sometimes what they say doesn’t just tell you about you – they tell you about something outside of yourself you need to pay attention to. Sometimes our feelings show us what hurts us, not so we can avoid it, but so we can run to where others hurt for the same reason.

Thanks Emmylou. And to that young man, where ever you may be, I pray you may find….home.

That none should be lost unto this world.