And the Walls Came Tumbling Down
6 “Why are you so angry?” the Lord asked Cain.
“Why do you look so dejected?
7 You will be accepted if you do what is right.
But if you refuse to do what is right, then watch out!
Sin is crouching at the door, eager to control you.
But you must subdue it and be its master.”
Actually. According to my journal. I asked for it.
In 2002, life was good. I was married to the charming husband I had wanted for so long. We enjoyed a stimulating circle of friends. I held my dream teaching position, and I was taking some fascinating classes in writing and theater. We had purchased the second-floor of a spacious 1920s three-flat in the eclectic and artistic near-north Chicago suburb of Evanston. And we were involved with an exciting urban church plant team.
But—in spite of it all—or maybe, in part, because of it—my soul was dusty and dingy and starting to crack. My journal for 2002 reads like a broken record. Over and over. The same sort of desperate refrain. Here is just a sampling…
28 January 2002
Clear out the cobwebs that have filled my spirit for so long.
Breathe new life in me.
11 February 2002
Release me from the chains that bind—past experiences, fears,
wrong thinking, wrong beliefs, wrong views of You.
3 April 2002
Grab ahold of me, God!
Shake me out of this spiritual sleepwalk.
28 June 2002
I live as if I don’t NEED You—as I need water and air.
Who do I think I am?
Revive me, O Lord.
12 November 2002
Loosen my grip on the good things You have given.
Pry my fists from the temporal, so I can cling instead to You.
And then, 30 January 2003
I just looked over my past year of journal entries.
And I want to scream at the top of my lungs…
Some might call it a “dry spell.” George Barna gives it another name. Remember?
It’s Stop Number Six on his journey toward Maximum Faith. “A Prolonged Period of Spiritual Discontent.”
“After years of involvement in the Christian faith, most people slip into a spiritual coma,” he writes. We are painfully aware that we have plateaued, but we feel helpless to get ourselves unstuck.
That was me, all right. Painfully aware. Plateaued. Helpless. Stuck.
Even more worrisome. Barna’s research indicates that the vast majority of Christians who reach Stop Six never move on. They spend the rest of their lives in this spiritually anesthetized state. I didn’t know much, but I knew I didn’t want that.
So, over and over in 2002, I begged God to break down the walls. The apathy. The inertia. The indifference. The façade.
And sure enough. He did. For the next six years. Blow by blow.
As they say, be careful what you ask for.
Blow Number 1 was Peter’s dad. His diagnosis in June 2003. Pancreatic cancer. Mere months to live. And he didn’t know God. Not until the very end.
Blow Number 2 was infertility. Believing I was pregnant in July 2003. Waking up on my birthday, the 15th, to discover I was not.
A switch flipped deep inside of me on that day. And seemingly all of the sudden—I was mad. The Second Stage of Grief. And I stayed mad. For a long, long time. Again, stuck. But now in a very different place. No longer wandering around in aimless circles on the barren plateau. No. This time stuck in a simmering caldron of Fear and Sorrow. That monthly boiled over. And presented itself as Rage.
22 September 2003
Anger consumes me.
We have been trying for a baby for many months. No luck, and I am angry.
Peter’s dad is dying. He only has a few months to live. I am angry.
Friends have announced that they are pregnant. I am angry.
My parents only received a small settlement for mom’s burn accident
after a four-year legal battle. And I am angry.
Beneath the anger, I know I am also afraid.
Afraid that Peter’s dad will die without knowing You.
Afraid of the future for Mom and Dad.
Afraid that we won’t be able to have a family.
Afraid that You don’t like me very much.
I don’t blame You.
I don’t like myself.
Throughout 2003 and into 2004 my anger continued to brew.
The primary object was God. I held Him responsible. And told Him so. All over the pages of a lime green journal, in a deceptively tidy script, I pled with Him. Questioned Him. Accused Him. Doubted Him. Called Him horrible names. And threatened to walk away from Him altogether.
But because God wasn’t a terribly tangible target, I also railed against certain human beings who dared to cause offense. Not surprisingly, Peter bore the brunt. No one else was close enough to me to know the half of my hurt. But even so, as the months wore on, other people did come into my crosshairs as well.
In 2003 I was meeting regularly for a Bible study with the pastor’s wife and a couple of other women from our church plant team. That fall the young pastor and his wife announced that they were pregnant. It felt like another blow. Shortly thereafter another friend in the Bible study group came with the same happy news. Bam. Then, in October, as their bellies began to bulge, they decided to disband our women’s group. It was getting to be a bit much, they reasoned. We were all stretched in too many directions, they said. But not long after, I learned, they had joined another group. A group that was especially for Moms. A club from which I was clearly excluded. It felt personal. Like a sledgehammer to my knees. And I was mad.
In loud conversations with Peter, I accused them as well. Called them horrible names. Threatened to walk away. And, in fact, I did. I stopped attending women’s events. Stopped talking to the pastor and his wife and my friend and other pregnant people and moms. I started arriving at church just in time and escaping as soon as the pastor said the final, “Amen.”
In the Spring of 2004 I did exchange a few e-mails with the pastor’s wife. I understand now that her goal was reconciliation—but at the time it felt like more of a confrontation regarding my rude behavior, than an attempt to reach into my pain. At the time it was just another blow.
On Mother’s Day 2004 I made the silly mistake of going to church. Before we could even sing one worship song, before the worship leader could even ask all of the mothers to stand, before we could applaud the mothers and give them flowers, there on the screen—larger than life itself—was a picture of the pastor’s new born babe. Blow Number Seven and Eight and Ninety-Nine. Who’s counting? And I was mad.
In June of 2004 we were trying fertility treatment for the first time. And while I was at home swallowing tiny pills and monitoring my body’s every response, Peter was taking a group of junior high students to England on an exciting ten-day educational trip that he had planned months before. Thankfully, Peter was scheduled to arrive home at just the right day of the month.
But then, the night before his return flight, he called with some news. He had lost his wallet while hiking with the kids out on Dartmoor. Lost his credit cards. His phone. But most importantly his green card. It was late on that Friday night when he realized that these things were all gone. He and his mum took flashlights out on the barren hills and tried to retrace his steps. But to no avail.
He called again from London the next morning. Saturday. To say that, of course, they wouldn’t let him on his flight. Of course, the American embassy wouldn’t open again until Monday. So of course, he wouldn’t get home until Tuesday at the earliest. As far as the fertility treatment was concerned, Tuesday was probably going to be too late.
I wanted to be mad. Certainly, a part of me was. But I also really wanted to respond with grace. I was getting almost as sick of Angry Kelli as Peter was. And I knew he already felt bad enough about the mistake. So I held it together on the phone. And when we hung up, I prayed for peace. I prayed for a quick green card turn-around. I prayed that—by some miracle—we could still finish that month’s fertility treatment plan. And—by some miracle—for a fragile moment—I felt okay about things.
Then, on Sunday night, the phone rang again. This time it was one of my closest friends.
“How are you?” she asked. And I told her some. About Peter and my pills. I gave her the socially acceptable version of my pain. Not even she knew the depths of my despair or the heat of my fury.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Well, we actually have some news,” she said. “We’re pregnant.”
“Congratulations.” I choked out the right words to say. “I’m happy for you guys.”
“Thanks. Can I pray for you?” she asked. And while she did, I started to cry.
“I need to go,” I said as soon as she uttered “Amen.” I was about to bawl. “I am happy for you. I wouldn’t want you to go through what we are, but I’m tired of going through it myself.”
“I understand,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. And I hung up the phone.
A few days later I sent her an e-mail, saying in effect, “This is too hard. I’m going to need some space.” I pushed her away. Lost my friend. It was a great big blow. And I was mad.
One day in early July 2004 I arrived home to find that both the pastor’s wife and my Bible study friend had given me a call. Two voicemail messages, from two new moms, asking if we could meet. Though I was still attending church at the time, I hadn’t spoken to either of them in months. This was clearly an awkward, but coordinated, effort to set things right. But I wasn’t ready. Their attempt felt like too little, too late. It felt forced and false. And it made me mad.
A couple of weeks later, near my birthday, I received a card from my dear pregnant friend. A sweet note, I’m sure, saying I-don’t-remember-what. What I do remember is that on the front of the card was a lovely picture of a mother loon and several babies, swimming in a pond. In my hormonal, brokenhearted state, the image triggered my every fear. Even loons could have babies! I ripped the card to shreds and shouted at Peter, “How could she send a picture of babies and a mom? What was she thinking?” On and on, I fumed about those silly loons.
Until poor Peter shouted back, “ENOUGH!”
It was one of only a handful of times that I have ever heard him raise his voice. “I try to be understanding, Kelli,” he said. “But I can’t support this kind of behavior. It hurts me to see you this way. Let go of the anger. It’s gone on too long.”
“I can’t let go of the anger,” I sobbed, “because then I will have to feel the pain.”
In August of 2004 Peter went to a church leadership meeting. He was on the elder board and preached on occasion. But when Peter arrived that day, the rest of the team told him that he would not be preaching anymore. He needed to take time to deal with his family. Namely, me. “People are finding it difficult to listen to you preach since there is unresolved conflict between your wife and other women in the church,” they said.
Church discipline was raised as a possibility. Phrases such as “how long is this going to go on?” were used. Peter came home and told me the story—stunned and confused. You can guess my response. Of course. I was mad.
To be fair, the pastor sought counsel on the matter and wrote a letter of apology for how things were handled. I wrote a defensive letter in reply. And I stopped going to church.
Then one day I had a bright idea.
Over the past 80+ years our guestroom walls had been covered in multiple layers of wallpaper and then multiple layers of paint. In one corner the thick covering was already pulling away, causing a crack that had continued to grow. Since we had moved into the condo in 2002, I had wanted to rip the paper down. But Peter repeatedly cautioned me to wait. “It’s too big a job. Now is not the time.”
But when he left home that morning, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to tear those walls right down.
This was something I could change.
Something I could control.
Something I could put right.
Something I could make beautiful.
Initially, the paper came off in large and satisfying sheets, revealing the original pink cameo pattern from 1925. A demur woman, silhouetted up and down the wall. The more I pulled, the more I became obsessed with uncovering all of her forms. But the more I pulled, the more she hid her face. The more she refused to be revealed.
And that afternoon Peter came home to a horrible scene. There I was. Knee deep in dusty old wallpaper. Dirty and sweaty. My hair, a mess. My eyes, wild. One wall was mostly peeled, revealing two large holes in the old plaster. Some of the original wiring was poking out. The other three walls were giving me all sorts of trouble. No amount of piercing or spraying or scraping was setting them free.
Peter wasn’t happy.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “I told you not to start this.”
“I had to,” I said. And I begged him to help.
“I can’t help,” he said. “I have no time.”
“If you loved me, you would!”
And maybe it was the IVF drugs talking. Maybe it was my pain. My anger. My fear. My grief. Probably it was all of these things combined that drove that conversation into one of our darkest places. Cruel accusations. And then threats of suicide. “I’ll stick a fork in this electrical socket. I’ll stick it right into this wall.”
I scared Peter. That was probably my goal.
I even scared myself.
The next Sunday I tried to go back to church. I’m not sure why. I made Peter promise not to leave my side. We waited in the car until we knew the service had already begun, and we slipped in the back row.
I was miserable. It felt like every other sentence was a reference to babies and parenthood. I was crawling out of my skin. I wanted to stand up and scream.
To top it off we sang “Here I Am to Worship,” with the repeated refrain—“You’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me.”
At which point I actually said out loud, so that several people around me heard, “But He’s not!”
And Peter ushered me out the back door.
30 October 2004
Why are You wonderful to everyone else and not me?
Am I not good enough? Actually, I know I’m not. Now, more than ever, I know that.
I’m so full of anger and hate.
Do I hate my pregnant friends to get back at You? It’s You I really hate.
I don’t want to hate You—but I don’t know how to stop.
I don’t know how to love You anymore.
And I don’t know how to believe that You love me.
I wish this chapter of my life had been different. I wish I had handled the pain gracefully. Trusted God unwaveringly through it all. And I have since tried to understand why I didn’t.
Blow by blow. As the walls came tumbling down. What was being revealed?
Doctor Donald E. Sloat has said that “an examination of one’s life usually reveals that there was an accumulation of experiences, emotions, and situations that gradually led to the crisis. It is a culmination of emotional and lifestyle patterns that began developing in childhood and finally burst into the open.”
Emotional and lifestyle patterns. That developed in childhood. And finally burst into the open.
For me, I suppose, that included not knowing how to process trauma and loss. Not letting anyone close enough to help me through. Not depending on or trusting in people or God to care for me. To love me. Or not accepting their love because I had to be strong and independent enough to do without.
It included a wrong belief about God. I had tried to serve Him all my life, so didn’t He owe me something? A wrong belief that my life had to be perfect. That my worth was all wrapped up in a certain image of myself. An image I had worked hard to create. An image that was now crumbling away.
I also wish the church better understood how to help people in pain. I wish we understood that when someone who is depressed crawls into a cave, we should not let her go in there alone. I wish we better understood that it isn’t usually helpful to tell a hurting person all of the ways that it could be worse. It isn’t helpful for us to avoid her or to ignore the subject at hand. It isn’t helpful to speak platitudes or to preach or to confront her sin. To make assumptions or promises that aren’t ours to keep. It isn’t always helpful to compare our pain to hers. Or to tell the hurting person stories of how her situation turned out just fine for other people we know.
I wish we better understood that there isn’t much we can say. But we must do something. We must be present with her. We must be patient. We must listen. And cry. And love. And pray. And wait for God to break through.