“The movement in our relationship to God is always from God to us. Always. We can’t, through our piety or goodness, move closer to God. God is always coming near to us. Most especially in the Eucharist and in the stranger.” –Nadia Bolz-Weber, a fabulously controversial pastor in the US.
Sitting in the backseat – sans rings – on the way to Tom and Samara’s family dinner.
A Simon and Garfunkel song started playing in the car.
Mr Ex and Tom are Simon and Garfunkel fans. Samara and I would always roll our eyes when the boys listened to Simon and Garfunkel and even more so when they started to sing along. The truth is, I actually quite like Simon and Garfunkel. But it was fun to take the mickey. The boys would be enthusiastically singing just to annoy us. And we’d be groaning and rolling our eyes. The four of us always had a hoot together. By the way, it wasn’t nearly as cheesey as that just sounded, but hopefully you get the idea. It was fun.
No laughter this time though.
Simon and Garfunkel started playing and, instantly, the tears came flooding.
Tom and Samara quickly skipped the song.
At their family dinner, Tom and Samara, and Tom’s family, were exactly what I needed.
They were the Carpathia ship coming to pick up Titanic survivors from the icy waters, offering warm blankets, hot drinks and comfort.
Too often, people minimise pain by telling us that everything will be OK (which it will), but that’s not what we want to hear. Too often, people trivialise pain by saying that there are bigger problems in the world (which there are), but that is also not what we want to hear. Instead, Tom’s mum told me that it hurts because it mattered. She said that it’s OK to be sad. We all played ‘Balderdash’ and drank cups of tea.
And I felt loved.
The most wonderfully spectacular – and yet modestly simple – way that God has shown His love to me is through the people in my life. Those that have crossed my path, seemingly random yet oh-so-beautifully orchestrated. And He is still doing that today.
Tom’s family are technically ‘Mr Ex’s people’. Team Mr Ex. Mr Ex’s side.
I mean, Tom and Mr Ex have been friends since childhood. So it is only natural that Tom would remain loyal to Mr Ex.
But it struck me as impressive and amazing that Tom still also remained loyal to me.
There are plenty of others on ‘Team Mr Ex’ who have kept me at an arm’s length since our separation. I would take a stab in the dark that it is not because they agree with Mr Ex’s actions. I guess it’s just easier to keep me at an arm’s length because they love Mr Ex and they don’t know how to still love me too. Mr Ex’s mother and extended family would fall into that category. And I’m not having a go at them. I get it. It’s easier to remain loyal to only one player in a tennis match.
It was a shame though. I always clicked effortlessly with Mr Ex’s aunt (his mother’s sister). I also really liked his other aunts and his grandmother. But I’ve never heard a peep from that clan. EVER. And that’s OK. Again, I get it. It makes me sad. But I do get it.
And really, to refer back the tennis player analogy, you can’t barrack for two opposing players in a tennis match, right? Just like you can’t show simultaneous support for two opposing political parties. And you can’t love someone AND love their ex.
Or can you?
Maybe gutsy people can!
Tom’s family are gutsy; grace and love abounding. They have so beautifully walked the tricky path of showing love and grace to both sides of the fence. And they’ve had plenty of practice; they did the same when Mr Ex’s parents divorced. Some people just ooze love and grace.
I say, stick close to those people.
When God brings strangers into our lives, it is never random.
Penny the PI, Jill from Mr Ex’s workplace, my new friends Sana & Bree, Tom’s family… they were just the start of a long list of strangers who became very, very dear friends. Strangers who parachute-landed in my life bringing love, wisdom and humanity.
It’s like we have met these people before.
And it seems that through chance and circumstance, we are meeting them again. But we are not. It’s a first-time encounter. Maybe that feeling of being re-united is because we are actually encountering Jesus – Jesus is with and within these people – and it is Jesus in them that we are recognising.
Our souls kind of say, “Oh, there you are! I’ve been looking for you!”
And I think there are too many Christians out there who think that God is only working with and within other Christians. I call bullshit to that. I don’t think God is limited by our ability to recognise Him at work in our lives. Just because someone calls themselves an atheist or says they are indifferent to religion, doesn’t mean that God isn’t at work in their life.
Shortly after Mr Ex’s last appearance, my friend Nicky invited me to a festival with her and a group of her friends. A really big step for me: Going somewhere as a single person.
And with no rings on my finger. Yikes! This is a first.
I got a bit dressed up, donned some make-up, and spruced myself up. It was incredibly nerve-wracking to venture into a group of strangers, only knowing Nicky, and fly solo.
Maiden voyage of Ms. Essie Bell: First solo expedition to circumnavigate a festival amidst strangers.
This was exactly the kind of thing that I’d never done solo before. Mr Ex would always be there with me. Whether buying a drink, walking through town, or just being with a group of people who I didn’t know very well, Mr Ex would always be there. His presence was always a comfort. A safety blanket. A guaranteed person to talk to or just stand next to. Now it was only me. No safety blanket.
It was hard.
By joves, I admire single people. It’s SO much easier having a safety blanket.
It was hard to make small talk. The past few weeks of my life had been anything but normal. Trying to integrate back into normal social settings is weird at the very least. But I did it. I’m not one of those extroverts who finds small talk easy. I actually find small talk incredibly cumbersome. But, I am not shy and I do love making authentic connections with people and talking about deep and meaningful things. And that trait was to stand me in good stead for later in the evening.
A great evening, great food, great wine, great entertainment, and lots of great people around.
So, my maiden voyage was a positive one.
At the end of the evening, I had to walk through the city to get to my car.
A stranger called Jade was walking in the same direction.
“We can walk together, if you like?” she asked. This is maybe 11pm, so probably a good idea to walk through the city streets together.
As we set off, we introduced ourselves.
“I’m Essie,” I told her.
“I’m Jade. Lovely to meet you, Essie, how are you?”
Never, ever underestimate the power of those three little words. How. Are. YOU?
You could be standing next to someone who is completely broken and you’d never know. Ask them, “how are you?” and you might just alter the course of their life. No kidding.
Those three little words have the power to make a world of difference. They really do.
So I proceeded to tell Jade exactly how I was. The flood gates of honesty opened. I told her about the significance and the challenges of this evening’s first solo voyage because my husband had just recently left me for a colleague and I was trying to make head or tail of a new ‘normal’. She definitely got more than she bargained for! I’ve never had any trouble getting straight to authentic conversations with people. It’s small talk that I really hate.
Anyway, Jade and I walked and talked through the CBD to our cars. And, little did we know at the time, that was the first “walk and talk” of many!
It turned out that she loves Jesus too and she lived in the suburb next to mine. We exchanged numbers and from that week onwards, Jade, her friend Lily, and I went walking and talking weekly. Beach walks, walks through the local national park, up hills, down hills, over bridges, under bridges… Jade, Lily and I were walking buddies! And it was like we’d been friends for decades. Maybe even longer. Jade and Lily quickly went from being total strangers to my dear friends.
Mr Ex’s emails about “The Practical Stuff” (i.e. sorting out our finances, insurance, properties, etc.) kept coming. He said that I needed to see our mortgage broker to arrange house details.
A couple of days after my maiden voyage, our mortgage broker, Shaun – who was, for all intents and purposes, a stranger to me – came over with a stack of paperwork.
You see, Mr Ex and I had recently purchased another house in the Hills. It was an investment that we hoped would soon become our family home. Yes, Mr Ex is a lawyer who had an impressive pay cheque at the time, so we were sitting pretty comfortably on Easy Street. Not bad for a 26 and 24-year-old. We bought that property in November 2012. Interesting timing, since you might recall Mr Ex telling me that his affair had been going on for two months in mid-January 2013. So we were literally buying our future family home in the same month that he was starting an affair! What a busy month it was for Mr Ex!
Anyway, the bank owned most of it. It would just be a matter of selling it and giving money back to the bank.
As Shaun, the mortgage broker and virtual stranger, was going through the massive wad of papers to sort out administration for the bank, I saw a photo of three children on his laptop’s desktop background.
“Cute kids,” I smiled. So he told me their names and ages.
“What school do they go to?” I asked. Typical teacher question.
He told me. And it was a Christian school.
“Oh! I’d love to teach at that school one day,” I replied.
He looked up at me for a moment, intrigued.
“You’re a Christian?” he asked me.
And then the magic happened.
Shaun, my random mortgage broker, loves Jesus too.
But not only that, Shaun had been married with a child for several years and his wife cheated on him and left him! WTF?!
Just like my situation, Shaun had had no heads up, no warning signs; A bolt of lightning in a clear blue sky.
Shaun hit an all-time low in his life. Alcohol abuse, depression and other dark stuff. He didn’t want God, or church, or anything to do with Christians. He’d had no exposure to religion or faith of any kind. But, in a valley of darkness and pain, he went searching for answers to life’s big questions; suffering, the meaning of the existence, etc.
And there, in the midst of messiness and brokenness, Shaun reluctantly stumbled across Jesus. He’s been a follower of Jesus ever since.
Many years later and he is now re-married with another couple of kids. He offers counselling and speaks in churches about his experiences, giving comfort to people who are on that same road of being single against their will and/or having a cheating spouse.
Talk about turning a mess into a message!
When Mr Ex and I had ‘randomly’ selected Shaun to be our mortgage broker four years earlier when we purchased our first house, it was because of his credentials and his locality. We’d never spoken about personal things with Shaun. It was strictly business. Professional. But God knew exactly what he was doing.
So there we were, Shaun and myself having an in-depth, no-holding-back, souls-connecting discussion about our experiences of finding Jesus in the midst of grief.
And boy, did we talk for a long time!
Jesus pops up in the face of a stranger. And it’s always when we least expect it.