Chapter 13: In the Stranger

“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.

Grief sucks!!

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.

“Yep!”

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.

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Chapter 11: Death, heaped with a pile of shit

I fluctuated from moments of strength…: Throw me to the wolves and I’ll come back leading the pack!

…To moments of defeat: This is never, ever going to stop hurting.

The emotional roller-coaster was enough to make anyone projectile vomit.

Interestingly, about ten months prior to this messy January 2013, I had had conversations with two different friends on two different occasions. Both times, I’d ended up in tears saying that my biggest fear was my beloved Mr Ex dying. I was frightened of Mr Ex dying and me ending up on my own. Becoming a widow was the worst possible scenario for my life. The absolute worst. Nothing could be worse than that, I thought. And it was actually a very real fear. I was scared of being alone. I knew I couldn’t face life without my other half, Mr Ex.

So, it is rather ironic how ten months later, my ‘worst possible scenario’ was kind of coming true… but actually in a far, far, far worse way than I even imagined.

Yes, the death of a loved one is horrid. Unbelievably horrid. I don’t want to take away from any of the grief and trauma that accompanies the death of a spouse.

But my GP explained that the ‘advantage’ (for want of a better word) of death is that we have [that rather equivocal word] closure. With death, we [usually] know for certain what happened, we can grieve appropriately, and then we can heal. It’s by no means easy, but it is assisted by the absence of your spouse’s active rejection and betrayal of you.

The process of comprehending a cheating spouse is firstly grieving the ‘death’ of your spouse (i.e. coming to terms with the loss of the person you love) PLUS a whole lot of toxic waste dumped on top: rejection, betrayal, uncertainty, disbelief, loss of self identity, trust issues, self doubt, legal dramas, and definitely, unequivocally, no closure.

It’s death, heaped with a pile of shit.

On my roller-coaster of abandoned wife emotions, my brain would recall our happiest memories and I’d see flashbacks in my mind’s eye of our wonderful holidays, special milestones, and highlights of the last seven years, convincing me over and over again that our love was worth fighting for. Date nights watching episodes of Friends on TV, munching on spaghetti carbonara, snuggled on the sofa. It was all so real in my mind.  And my brain would actually see us in the future as grey-haired nomads touring the country in a caravan once the children had left home and hosting Christmas lunch at our place with our grandkids unwrapping presents under the tree.

Am I going insane?!

“No,” my GP assured me. “After years of you projecting and planning your lives together – and expecting beyond any doubt that you’d grow old together – the brain has so many fixed scenarios and plans. It will take you years, maybe even longer, to get over that.”

Great.

We live in a world where technology makes magic happen around us every day. We can chat in real time to our friends on the other side of the globe through a computer, we have maps that direct us step-by-step to our destination, we can jump on a plane and be on the other side of the world within hours, and billions of text messages are sent daily across the globe arriving at their destination within seconds.

But according to my lovely GP, we haven’t figured out a way to instantly heal from rejection and betrayal, other than the elapsing of years…?

“Isn’t there a hemisphere in my brain that you can just surgically remove? To make me forget all about him and move on?” I asked.

She hesitated.

I was obviously joking, but not really.

My GP, as truly amazing as she is, couldn’t give me any definite promises that I would be OK anytime soon. She could give me strategies for being optimistic, she could refer me to a psychologist, she could pass on tips for ‘building resiliency’, but she couldn’t actually say, “YES, ESS, YOU WILL BE OK!”

I went to the psychologist a few times. But that was about as successful as growing an apricot tree in the North Pole. The psychologist sat behind her desk with a clipboard making notes. She asked me sterile questions to get inside my head. She wanted to pinpoint motives for Mr Ex’s affair by asking delving questions about his childhood and comparisons of his hippy, yoga-loving, anti-Christianity mother and his fundamentalist-Christian, anti-schooling, anti-TV-watching father. And yes, that’s a very interesting topic and there is a lot that can be speculated. With one staunchly religious parent and one freedom-fighting parent, there is so much that one could say. But really, how much of that is helpful at this point? We could talk for hours about possible motives, but it wasn’t going to change reality. And Mr Ex is a complex human, just like the rest of us, so trying to get inside his head (let alone his parents’) seemed impossible as well as useless.

I asked the psychologist about me. Me moving on. Me healing. Me making sense of this mess. And she recommended a book. It was called You Can Heal Your Life. Surprise, surprise; It’s a best seller.

Hmm.

That title didn’t actually fill me with much anticipation.

Here I am, feeling broken. Useless. Rejected. Hopeless.

Do I really want to put my hope of healing in myself and my own abilities?

The book suggests that “by choosing loving, joyous thoughts, you can create a loving, joyous world.”

Close, but no cigar.

Yes, the secular, non-threatening sentiments might validate you and send you swooning into happiness and self-empowerment as she constructs a world where you can fashion your own reality based on wishful thinking and optimism. But I question how deep that can ever really be.

Looking at myself in this moment… THIS SITUATION IS SHIT. I think it would be darn-right ridiculous to be spouting loving, joyous thoughts. My reality is horrible right now. And no amount of loving, joyous thoughts is going to change that.

To me, it’s silly to say that we are capable of transforming our own lives. Not because I’m a negative person who doubts my own strength. Not because I’m pessimistic. Not because I’m cynical.

But because I know there are some days when I am a mess. There are some days when I am grouchy, impatient, insecure and overtired. And there are times when I just don’t give a crap! Because, hey! I’m human! And in those moments, I can guarantee that I don’t want to be solely reliant on my own strength and abilities.

The world is broken. That Bible says that. But it’s also bloody obvious!  Just turn on the TV news to hear what’s happening in our world today. It’s a sad, sad place. There are unimaginable atrocities and ridiculous injustices. There are wars raging, tsunamis creating devastation, people killing, hatred galore, children and animals being abused… it’s endless really.  And closer to home, go for a walk around the local city and we are confronted with homeless people, broken marriages, feuding neighbours and friendship breakdowns.   Even on a smaller scale, Management Teams at work places can’t agree with each other on how to do ‘XYZ’ and the coaches of a sporting club can’t work together to agree on a plan for the season and we have unions, reconciliation tribunals and police stations because, well, get any group of humans together and there will be problems, fractures and divisions.

Fact: Disharmony is everywhere.

Optimism just seems stupid.

I want to put my hope into something that goes beyond that.

Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:31).

It’s ironic. I do love irony. And I find that irony pops up a lot.

The Bible is often viewed as a rules and regulations book of oppression and judgment which holds no relevance in today’s society. (By the way, I can totally see why someone might think that. I mean, some of the books were written more than 3,000 years ago!)

But, in my experience, the Bible gives me scarily accurate depiction of today’s world and how to deal with it. The Bible gives me accounts by people I can relate to; useless, damaged, unspecial and ordinary. And how God loved them no matter what.

And, more irony! As I was slowly realising and accepting my own mortality, my own sinful heart of stone, and my inability to fix things on my own, I was actually finding a new depth of freedom!

I was realising the true value of accepting my brokenness.

And I was starting to appreciate my own limitations.

Because in my weakness, God is strong. He is a source of wholeness for my brokenness.

With Jesus, I don’t need to cover up my mistakes or my messes. He already knows. Instead, I can come to the cross as a broken, grouchy and impatient human who is feeling empty and rejected. And Jesus will take me as I am. And He will make me new. Over and over again.

In John 11:25, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”

That is an impressive statement.

Resurrection. Defeating death. New life. Adding more to the story.

While I was looking at this current situation as my husband’s ‘death’, it was perhaps more poignantly, my death. Never mind about Mr Ex. I was the one who was in the process of dying. Dying to myself. Dying to my own constructs of perfection. Dying to my own wants and hopes. Dying to my own plans for my life. Dying to my vengeance-seeking heart.

Death is painful.

And I’m not even vaguely exaggerating when I say that it felt like death. Yes, a cheating spouse and betrayal by your most beloved IS that painful.

But the beauty of Jesus’s promises is that death and resurrection is his specialty.

He gives us a new life. He adds more to the story.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).

The Bible doesn’t say that all things ARE good. It says that all things are working together for good.

So, some things in life are bad. Some things in life are horrible and evil and painful. But we have a God who makes all things work together for good. He is that powerful.

Three days after Jesus’ death, a couple of Jesus’s friends were walking along a road (Luke 24). Their best friend, Jesus, who claimed to be God in human form, had just been successfully killed. I can only imagine how they were feeling. Gloomy, to say the very least.

Then, a man (I hate to ruin a good story, but it’s actually Jesus) comes along, asking “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” The Bible describes Jesus’s friends’ faces as downcast, as they reply “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened… The things that happened to Jesus… He was a man of God… dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and all the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed him, got him sentenced to death, and crucified him. And we had hoped that he was the One…”

What a depressing picture.

Jesus’s friends continue, “And it is now the third day since it happened. But now some of our women have completely confused us. Early this morning they were at the tomb and couldn’t find his body. They came back with the story that they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. Some of our friends went off to the tomb to check and found it empty just as the women said, but they didn’t see Jesus.”

I love what happens next.

Jesus lovingly and cheekily says to them, “So thick-headed!” and reveals to them that it is indeed Him. He has risen from the dead.

The next account of Jesus appearing to his other friends (I guess they didn’t have Facebook to share the good news in seconds) who are out fishing. Jesus just casually strolls up to them and asks, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They naturally freak out, thinking that they are seeing a ghost. Jesus calmly tells them, “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” The Bible then says that they were in shock and amazement, but they give Jesus a piece of fish which He took and ate.

I just love that too.

I mean, Jesus is actually deity, so you’d think He would be born in a palace and make His guest appearances and re-appearances in the holiest of holy temples. But no, Jesus was born in an overcrowded stable, surrounded by barn animals, and He meets His mates when they’re out fishing, not asking them to bow down to Him, but actually asking them if they have anything to eat.

And yes, Jesus has conquered death. He shed His blood on that cross with real nails that went through his human hands and feet, crucified by the very people He came to love and save, so that we (little unworthy scumbags) could have everlasting life.

And voila! An act of evil – and Jesus’s immense suffering – was turned into something good.

Sana gave me a Psalm. It was Psalm 27. As I read it, my Bible pretty much illuminated with flashing fairy lights.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?   The Lord is the strength of my life; Of whom shall I be afraid?” -Psalm 27:1.

How do I know it will all be OK? How can I be certain in a situation bleeding with uncertainty?

In those moments when I’m lying on the floor unable to pick myself up, I can tell you quite confidently that I do NOT want my hope placed solely in myself.

In those moments when I feel completely consumed by vengeance and bitterness, I can NOT flick a switch in my own strength and spout sugar-coated thought bubbles.

In those moments of sheer terror of the future or the utter grief of losing Mr Ex the best friend I’d had, I do NOT want to be putting my hope in myself or any other mere mortals.

“I would have lost heart, unless I had believed
that I would see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.” -Psalm 27:13.

“…the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”  That’s just a fancy way for saying goodness in this world. In other words, I will see goodness in this life. I clung to that. I read Psalm 27 over and over. First thing in the morning. Last thing at night.

All the GPs, self-help books and psychological therapies in the world can’t make that promise.

Screw wishful thinking. Screw optimism.

God gives us a guarantee. An assurance. That I WILL BE OK.

I WILL BE OK. I WILL SEE GOD’S GOODNESS IN THIS LIFE.

“Wait on the Lord;
Be of good courage,
And He will strengthen your heart;
Wait, I say, on the Lord!” -Psalm 27:14.