Sifted and Refined: A Blog on Human Weakness, Frailty, and Brokenness, and How God Can Use It (If We Let Him)

 

Pain changes you.

“There’s something I want to tell you,” she began.

I suddenly became aware of the din of china as she paused to collect herself. Lauri and I sat forward. It was clear from her quavering voice, her whole bearing really, that what she had to say was very important to her.

“30 years ago, when I was a freshman in college …” she took a deep breath, “… I got pregnant.”

An elegant woman, she maintained a dignified composure only with some difficulty. Neither Lauri nor I said anything. We simply gave her room to speak when she was ready.

“The young man involved took no responsibility. I was alone and afraid. I didn’t know what to do. Full of shame, I didn’t want anyone to know.”

She took another deep breath.

“I had an abortion.”

With those words, tears streamed down her cheeks. She dabbed her eyes, slightly smudging her mascara. That this confession had cost her something was obvious. She looked physically spent, as if saying this had temporarily aged her ten years. This woman, whom we had known for so long, had carried this secret all of her adult life. After graduation from college, she married and eventually shared this part of her past with her husband. She regretted it. In particularly bitter conflicts with him in what became an unhappy marriage, he would threaten to tell her parents that “the little girl that they think is so sweet isn’t so sweet after all.”

I winced. It hurt just listening to her story. I could scarcely imagine how much more she had suffered carrying this secret these many years. Lauri’s face registered compassion. I felt privileged to be entrusted with this woman’s pain. Were it a material thing, you would have felt that it was something very precious, indeed, and that you must hold it gently and give it a hug. What had prompted this confession?

A few months prior to this meeting, I had made a public confession of my own sin and brokenness. The consequences of that were considerable, mostly negative. Before releasing that statement, my dear friend, Jwan Zhumbes, the Bishop of Bukuru, Nigeria, said to me: “There is a hidden blessing in this. Most men go their whole lives without knowing who their friends really are. You won’t be one of them.”

That was true, and the revelation could not have been more surprising. But there were other surprises. Gracious responses did not always come from Christians. Conversely, hateful ones did not always come from non-Christians. Had you any doubt, this proves that neither grace nor hate are the exclusive domains of any people group.

But the biggest surprise was the discovery that the most gracious responses of all came from people who might be labeled “marginal” Christians or not especially “good” ones by the spiritually smug. These were people who, like the woman who sat before us now, knew real brokenness in their own lives. They had no illusions about their own sufficiency or worthiness. If I was the Prodigal Son who had returned from the far country (literally) and some Christians greeted me with the words, “No fatted calf for you!” these were the ones who put the best robe on my back, a ring on my finger, and sandals on my feet. If others were haughty, these were humble; if some condemned, these comforted. In other words, these were the most Christian of Christians.

Yes, pain definitely changes you.

So why was she telling us this? Why now, after all of these years? We had no need to know and I had never pressed her for the details of her life. But that made her self-revelation more meaningful, not less. She had volunteered it. Apparently, the disclosure of my own brokenness made me more accessible and safer—some have told me so—and she could reasonably assume that I would not think myself better than she was. How could I? Suddenly, Lauri and I found ourselves with an unexpected ministry of listening to the secrets of those who were heavily burdened. This conversation was the first of many similar conversations with hurting people who felt they could not share their private torments with their families, Christian friends, or anyone else—a man who lost everything as a consequence of his alcoholism; a pastor who had two affairs in quick succession and fears he cannot be forgiven; a former student who, “thinking something was better than nothing,” had an affair of her own; a woman deeply wounded by malicious gossip; a man whose son resents him for his personal failures in spite of his extraordinary business success; and a young man who is dealing with the fallout of an “accountability partner” who betrayed his confidences to others. We ministered to them as they ministered to us. A fellowship of pain, of deep calling to deep.

“I share this with you, Larry, because I wanted you to know that you’re not the only sinner. Don’t let people fool you. We’ve all got secrets.”

So it seems. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average person is carrying 13 secrets, “five of which you’ll never tell a soul.” In his book Rebuilding Your Broken World, Gordon MacDonald cites a study that adds additional perspective: more than half of Americans say they have a secret that, were it known, would have “catastrophic consequences” for their lives. We keep the secrets of others (as we ought) to protect them. But that’s not the kind of secrets we’re talking about. We keep our own sins, failures, and embarrassments secret to protect ourselves. Like this woman, like me (like you?), people carry the burden of their own secrets chiefly out of shame and fear; the shame of letting down those they love and the fear of those who would weaponize it.

When I was 19, I participated in a religious retreat called The Emmaus Walk. I was the youngest on this particular weekend by at least a decade and that proved significant. After a heavy session, men were encouraged to write down those sins they wished to be unburdened of and, in a grand symbolic gesture, take them forward and burn them. I dutifully thought up a few things and went forward when called. Returning to my pew, I noticed that many men wept, sobbed actually, the bitter tears of regret. Noting my puzzlement, my mentor, a man 40 years my senior and whom I dearly loved, quietly sat down beside me.

“Why are they crying?” I asked.

“Son, those are tears of repentance. What you’re seeing are men embracing the grace and love of God.”

My face must have indicated a lack of understanding, because he put his arm around my shoulders and added, “You’re not old enough to have screwed up your life yet. Trust me. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

Needless to say, I now know what he meant.

As I was writing this blog, my daughter, Sasha, sent me this photo. “Dad it is like they asked me to write this.” (Sasha, adopted from Ukraine, doesn’t always speak or write English correctly. But she is, as you can see, good humored about this minor deficiency.)

Whoever wrote it, it’s perfect. “Just marred.” It captures the theme of this blog and the state of my soul so perfectly that I’m thinking about writing it on the back of my own car.

This is a blog of brokenness, be it a secret or a headline. In case it isn’t yet clear, I’m not talking about physical brokenness, though I have known that, too. I’m talking about the kind of inner brokenness that involves the heart and soul. It’s about what we do with our brokenness. It’s about what Jesus does with our brokenness—or doesn’t, as the case may be. This blog is fundamentally an exploration of the question, “Is the Bible’s promise of redemption and restoration real or is that just more crap that Christians put on their church signage because it sounds nice”? After all the clever theological debates, sunrise and candlelight services, mission trips, and Sunday school classes are over, that’s the Big Question, isn’t it? Either there is hope or there isn’t.

A Warning:

It has been almost a year since I’ve written a thing. I have turned down those speaking engagements that have been graciously offered. I have given no interviews. I’m not there yet. Lauri and I have focused on our marriage, on our children, and on healing. But our counselors, our pastor, and a veritable phalanx of friends who have stood by us, tell us it is time to move forward and reenter the arena. I do so, however, with some reluctance. So I must warn you. This blog will not be neat and tidy. I make no pretense of having all the answers. This isn’t one of those Christian books written retrospectively where everything, including the theological framework, seems so clear and the author ascribes a cheerful outcome to the workings of a benevolent God. Life is seldom like that. The Bible isn’t like that. King David called one of his own trials—a consequence, in part, of his own sin—“The Valley of the Shadow of Death” for a reason. The outcome appeared to be anything but a foregone conclusion. That’s where we are. This is messy. It’s midstream. And it’s raw. Speaking from her own pain, Lauri said to me, “Well, life isn’t G-Rated, is it?” No, it’s not.

It is Max Lucado, I think, who said that when David was good, he was the best of men, and when he was bad, he was the worst of men. And yet the beauty of David’s story is that the Lord forgave him and loved him even when men did neither. David’s testimony, both good and bad, forms part of the bedrock of the Old Testament Scriptures and it serves to both warn and encourage us. That will be our purpose here. We aren’t trying to please an editor, an audience, or meet a deadline. There is no capital campaign for which I am raising money. This is not an effort to exonerate, blame, or attack. This blog will be, above all else, honest if atypical of what you might find in a Christian bookstore. We write to give you a glimpse of our journey.
If you are one of those Christians who has all the answers and feel you’re impervious to those sins which are “common to man,” (1 Corinthians 10:13) good for you. I’m envious. Unsubscribe and read no further. This blog has nothing to offer you.

If you’re one of those Christians who loves sinners in the abstract, but you’d prefer to live in the spiritual equivalent of a gated community or a country club where you never actually meet them, then this blog is not for you.

If, however, you are weary of soul and heavily laden …

If you are carrying secret sins or secret wounds that you know not what to do with …

If you feel broken and alone and wonder if there is hope for you …

Of if you fear that you are so internally “marred” that it makes you fundamentally unlovable …

Then this is your blog.

In the weeks to come, we will feature a variety of voices, some of them anonymous for the reasons cited above. Finally, if in past my readers have heard more head than heart, this will be the opposite. Which is better remains to be seen. I’ll end each blog with a link to a song that is meaningful to me or other contributors. Today it is the most beautiful rendition of Amazing Grace that I have ever heard.

In closing, let me say this. Though we get glimpses, we don’t know where all of this is going. We are walking through our own version of the Valley of the Shadow of Death. But as the bishop has repeatedly reminded me over the course of the last year, “He who created the wilderness, my brother, knows the way through it.”

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