A few years ago, I was writing an obituary for a friend’s father who had passed away suddenly. As many of you may have noticed, I do alright with the writing part of things most of the time, but I’m not quite so skilled as an editor*. So, you shouldn’t be too surprised at the fact that I accidentally put the word “believed” where “beloved” was supposed to go. So the first line read: “Mr. Bob Kennedy, believed father of Teddy and Linda Kennedy. . .” Suddenly it seemed like not such a bad thing that Mr. Kennedy’s ex-wife hadn’t shown up to help her children handle the arrangements.
(I spent the weekend with Mr. Kennedy a couple of years earlier when his son Teddy got married. We were both just-outside-the-inner-circle participants in the wedding. My ex was the best man and Mr. Kennedy was the now sober and present father. I am quite certain that Mr. Kennedy absolutely laughed his ass off over the whole thing. I mean, he valued his children more than men who never went without them sometimes do. But the whole thing was pretty rich. He would have seen the humor.)
I keep thinking about that story, because I keep thinking about her – the former Mrs. Kennedy. Mrs. Kennedy is a good woman. She is a strong Catholic and a genuinely kind, loving spirit. But she never got over her divorce. Mr. Kennedy, for much of his life loved alcohol more than anything and destroyed everything he touched. She could never forgive him. She had a life and then he ruined it. So shall it always be. She had a sad face. And she was bitter. She coped with feeling so out of control by being rigid and demanding; anyone who wasn’t walking in lockstep with her was too threatening for her to cope with. They might get out of line and walk away from her too! Which meant that the harder she tried to hold onto the people who loved her, the further she pushed them away. It hurt too much to be with her, but she was deaf to everyone’s pain but her own. Last I heard, she was starting to come around, now that there are grandbabies. But it took two babies before she would start changing. And she caused a great deal of pain to those she loves dearly before getting there.
I keep thinking about her because I don’t want to do what she did. I don’t want my life and relationships to be defined by the day my marriage ended. I don’t want what happened there to poison all my other relationships as well. She reminds me how important it is to let go and forgive. And how easy it is to fool ourselves into thinking we have done just that.
I try to follow the example of the Psalmist in my prayers: “examine my heart, oh Lord, that I may not sin against you”. Years ago, I attended Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, IL while John Ortberg was a teaching pastor there. During a sermon, he mentioned this verse and said, “you’d have to be pretty brave to actually pray this one”. Being the contrarian that I am, I decided that I was pretty darn brave myself and just might give it a whirl. I now view it as a form of spiritual hygiene. Like taking your car in to be detailed. (I would say it’s like a colon cleanse, but that would be a pretty gross analogy. Hee .)
So, I’d like to think that because I am capable of taking such an empathetic view of the ex, and moving past wanting him to be bug splatter that I have forgiven. Good enough. Right? Except I can’t move on. I don’t mean from the ex, but from not wanting anything at all to do with him. If it weren’t for the kids I would have happily left the state without leaving a forwarding address. That’s where I am right now. It’s safe here. I’m in control here. But here’s the problem: our marriage broke up under extreme duress. I mean, it could be a multi-episode special edition of Dateline, Special Edition: When Families Break if only we were a lot less attached to what remains of our reputations. Or one of us was a murdering psychopath. But we’re not.
So what happens as the extreme stress we have been under starts to move on? What happens when we’re much more ourselves – two people who really enjoy each other – and not being torn to shreds anymore? I can live with a constant state of enmity or even a very distant, formal relationship necessitated by the needs of the kids. But I have no interest at all in ever being friends with this man. The idea is repugnant to me. But here he comes trying to be nice, trying to do the right things, talking about people we know and experiences we have shared. Doing his best to resist getting pulled into fights even.
It is so hard not to slip back into old patterns of conversations and debates and jokes. But I don’t want to act like friends with him. I want to tell him that I hate him and I wish horrible things about him and can’t wait for the day that I need nothing from him – not even his damn money. Hell, I have told him all those things. I’m just doing my best not to do it again.
Because I know that this is a horrible feeling and set of intentions to build a future for myself on. If I give into it, I will be poisoning everything I try to do. That’s how unforgiveness and sin work; just like poison into the well of your heart. And sometimes by the time you realize you’re sick, you have two grandbabies and children you haven’t seen in 5 years. I’ve been through enough. I want a happy ending. I don’t want to get lost on a road which is easy and safe but goes nowhere I want to be.
Often when I know that I need to do something I find unpleasant, I will ask God to help me want to do it. At the moment, the best I can do is tell God that he’s going to have to help me because I don’t even want to want to forgive any further than I have – ever. And even as I say this, God reminds me that he has given me a good heart, strength and wisdom to navigate my way through so far. I can trust that I’ll be able to meet even the worst challenges ahead – including an ex who isn’t providing fresh proof of his lunacy on a daily basis.
There is a verse in Jeremiah which many Christians love and hold onto which says, “’For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” Here’s the part that usually gets left out: this phrase comes from a letter which God has the prophet Jeremiah send to the Hebrew people who had just been sent into exile. So these people were living through a horrible nightmare of being dragged from their homes and neighbors and everything they knew and God says, “I know my plans for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.” Really? And that’s why you’ve sent me into exile? It’s easy to say, “well, they had it coming.” But there were innocent people suffering as well. Just like today the innocent and the guilty suffer side-by-side. And God said, “I know you are troubled and despairing, but trust me. I have good plans for you. Even now.” Do we believe him? Do I believe him? I believe him. So I will trust that if he asks me to forgive, he will also lead me safely through the fall-out from doing so.
* I first posted this without a title. On accident. I still can’t think of a decent title, so it’s terrible, but if you have any suggestions? :p