Thursday, February 14, 2013

Being Beloved

He handed me a small package, wrapped in pretty pink paper.  “I got this for you.  Thought you’d like to listen to it while we drive.”  A quick peck on the cheek and he stepped out of the car to fill the tank for the 3 hour trip to Pittsburgh.  I began picking at the tape running along one edge.  Peeling back a corner of the paper, I saw that it was Natalie Merchant’s latest CD, Tigerlily.  Always thinking of me, I mused, trying to relax my quivering jaw.  I hadn’t thought to buy him anything past the gold ring that I had slipped on his left hand a few hours earlier.  He slid back into the driver’s seat and I slid the disk into the dashboard player.  I remember feeling so vain at the thought of 22-year olds having a CD player in their car.  It was the last day of August 1996 and we were driving to the airport to catch a flight to the Bahamas.  The first hours of married life commencing and you might have mistaken them for a funeral wake.  

As the lyrics to San Andreas Fault filled the air, the dam I had been propping up with smiles and laughter all day finally gave way and I split open right there in the passenger seat, flooding the car with tears. Heaving, ugly-crying, snot-bubbling sobs that squeezed  the air out of my lungs.  I must have looked a sight in my purple trousseau, curls still pinned around the beaded headpiece that my own mother had worn some 25 years before, mascara running rivulets down my flushed cheeks as my hands clenched Kleenex to my mouth in an effort to blunt the rue.  I looked over at Bob and saw wide eyes filled with utter confusion and bewilderment.  This moment was clearly not covered in any of our marriage counseling sessions and he had no idea what was happening or how to make it stop.  This was supposed to be the happiest day of our lives, the moment we had long awaited when we could finally drive off as newlyweds into the happy dawning of our hopes and dreams.  Instead, it was the commencement of a season of turmoil, grief even, as I struggled to make sense of my new identity as a wife and married woman. It was suddenly real, unavoidably now and all the months of paradise-planning were nothing more than vapors escaping from a pressure cooker.  Natalie was a needle and she punctured my steely veneer, sending pent-up worries, fears, expectations splattering across walls of anticipated marital bliss. 

Compounding my anxiety was the sorrow of parting from my parents outside the reception hall.  I could still see my mom biting her lower lip, keeping her end of the promise to not cry at that final embrace.  I knew she was a heaving puddle now, too, as Dad drove her home where my bedroom stood empty for the first time in some 18 years.  Looking back, I think it would have been better if we had agreed to shake loose our tears together, no matter how puffy and red our faces would’ve looked in those last few pictures.  Our brave attempt to wave goodbye as happy stoics only lasted a few miles anyway.  In the end, our better halves, one softened and equipped by the years, the other still starched and ill-fitted for the need, were left to carry us through that hard day of cleaving.   

Bob and I laugh about it now, some 16 years later.  How those hours trapped in a car with an unconsolable bride probably weren’t much of a confidence boost for a young groom (in the days before cell phones, there was no calling home for advice or rescue.)  How a husband turning on the football game upon walking into the hotel room probably wasn’t  the most sensitive way to handle a tear-soaked wife.  These days, I don’t bristle when he missteps and he has learned the fine art of reading emotional tenors.  But for the first several months of our marriage, Bob didn’t know if he would be dancing with a cactus or over-ripened pear when he woke up in the morning.  Some days I handled my fears by being coldly confident, allowing no emotions of any kind to affect me.  Those were the cactus days and Bob learned to keep a safe distance.  Other times, when I was too weak to put up a front, the slightest pressure would slice me into tears.  Those were the ripened pear days and Bob learned to soothe my raw emotions with reassuring tones.     

Don’t misunderstand.  I was sure beyond the shadow of a doubt as I stood at the alter on our wedding day that I wanted to spend my life with Bob.  I could hardly wait for the pastor to pronounce me a Mrs. and thoughts of our future together swelled my heart full.  But I suspected, in the most secret corners of that same heart where truth we want to ignore is buried, that I was completely incapable of maintaining the standards that love requires.  As the pastor read from the iconic chapter in 1st Corinthians that love is patient, kind, not jealous, not selfish, not provoked, long suffering, truth seeking, hope filled and enduring, I cringed in recognition that on my best days I might be half-loving and on my worst days I would be love-less.  

As the weeks went by and the reality sunk in that I had agreed to ideals which I could never meet, fears of daily failure washed over me.  Instead of looking forward to the adventures ahead, my stomach knotted with anxiety at the thought of suddenly being charged with cooking for both of us, with keeping a husband in crisp pleated khakis, with finding a job in an unfamiliar town and knowing how to balance my aspirations of being both June Cleaver and Murphy Brown.  I hadn’t penned my name as Mrs. Gunning once and already I was laying chalk lines for crow’s feet of a much older woman.  And it was because everything I believed about love was wrong.  

Not the romantic passion of loving someone, but rather the daily doing of loving someone.  The thousand ways each day that a wife can either succeed or fail in loving her husband were like a tally sheet I subconsciously kept in my mind.  

Wake up in the morning and grouse under my breath that we had to watch ESPN during breakfast = selfish.  One hash mark in the fail column.  

Offer to pick up his dry cleaning on my way home from work = kind.  One hash mark in the success column.  

And if I was going to track my own doings, then it was only fair to tally Bob’s doings, too.  

He said the spaghetti was a little chewy = provoking.  One hash mark in his fail column.  

He got tickets for the theater on a football weekend = long suffering.  Probably should give two hash marks in his success column for that.   

And on and on it went, this heavy yoke-hauling to be loving enough and the scrutiny of whether I was being loved in return. It wasn’t long before I was in despair over my inability to keep the balance tipped in favor of success.  The more I struggled to love, the less loving I became and soon I found myself bogged down in a form of post-matrimonial depression.  I’m so thankful, so very thankful, that Bob’s broad shoulders readily shrug off offense.  He has the gift of easy forgiveness, a bedrock blessing, because on many days, as feared, I was love-less toward him.

The months went by and ever so slowly, I began to see that our marriage could withstand a burnt pot roast and a disagreement about where to spend the holidays.  Bigger issues involving health and finances cropped up making the cooking and laundry worries seem absurd in comparison and I began to appreciate Bob’s strengths that  buoyed me through my weaknesses.  Eventually, the months became years and the miles our hearts had spent twining together completely covered over those first few harrowing ones of our wedding day.  Rather than a granite table where problems were solved, Bob had become a softened leather couch where heartaches could be emptied out.  And I had learned that a bending willow branch was far stronger than a gouging cactus spine. 

We continued to build our marriage as we U-Hauled across the state for new jobs, clutched our hands together through the grief of infertility, gave each other grace and space through the insanity of 2AM triple bottle feedings and refused to speak anything but words of life during the summer of cancer surgery scars.  For the most part, the potholes caused by my fears had been filled in, allowing for a marriage ride that was crazy but smooth.  Except for that one rut that occasionally caused me to veer back into worry.  That Corinthian chapter about love still taunted me.  Why would God charge Paul to exhort us to such selfless love if there was no way we could pass the test?  I secretly worried that God was setting the stage for failure and it was a matter of time until things fell apart.  

And then one day as I was washing a sinkful of dishes, a verse from 1 John 4 flashed through my mind.  Out of the blue....God is love....  God IS love....  GOD is love.  I rolled the words around as I searched for the right way to hear them in my spirit, like a child turning a block this way and that until it finally drops into the shape sorter.  At last, the lock gave way to the key and I swung open a door that revealed the bigger picture.  GOD is love and LOVE is patient. LOVE is kind.  So it's GOD who is patient. And GOD who is kind.  And since love doesn't walk around in a boastful or arrogant manner, then neither does God. And He doesn't seek to promote himself ahead of the needs of His beloved and isn't easily provoked.  He keeps no tally of wrongs and doesn't take pleasure in injustice but rejoices in the truth.  He bears all things, believes all things, expects all things, endures all things.  He never fails.  

I saw the simplicity of it all in that moment.  Paul is telling us who God is and what good news that is for us as we bump along the road of life.  The love chapter was never meant to be understood as a list of things that we're expected to do but rather a reminder of what we can expect to be as we settle into the the arms of our loving Father.  We can expect to be treated with patience and kindness in our prickliest moments.  We can expect that God won't tear us down by bragging about the ease of His perfection and purity.  We can be confident that God will make our needs a priority and won't be quickly angered when we disappoint Him.  In fact, we can expect that He won't even keep tally marks of our failures at all.  It brings Him no pleasure to see us suffer lack but He's delighted when we prosper.  He bears all our flaws, believes in us all the time, expects good outcomes in every situation and endures alone when we have fallen away.  He never fails. Love never fails. No matter how wrong we get it, God's love for us never wavers.  

I stood at the sink for quite some time, the hot water wrinkling my fingers as I felt the vestiges of past fears and anxious thoughts peeling away.  It had never been my job to produce this kind of perfect, sacrificial love.  It was only my job to receive it as a glass receives water from a faucet.  And once filled, satisfied, equipped, I could simply share agape love with others effortlessly, allowing God's abundant, continuous supply to spill over into the lives I touched.  Oh, these simple things we complicate...

No wonder Jesus speaks of taking on His easy yoke, the one that joins us to Him in grace, the one that burdens Him yet sets us free...  It’s always been about Him loving us unconditionally first.  From the foundations of time, we have been beloved.  But how far from this truth have we strayed, trying to earn His favor, deserve His goodness, claim some role in our salvation.   

There’s a song on the Tigerlily album that I had forgotten about until this week when I was going through the songlist, the first time in over a decade.  It’s called Beloved Wife and the lyrics speak of the anguish an elderly man feels at the loss of his bride of 50 years.  

My love is gone
Would it be wrong if I should
Surrender all the joy in my life, 
Go with her tonight?

My love is gone
Would it be wrong if I should
Just turn my face away from the light, 
Go with her tonight?

It’s impossible to bottle my tears when I listen to it.  But this time, I heard the story from a different perspective.  God must have felt the same way about losing us, having His beloved torn from His arms with that first mouthful of sin.  How He must have grieved the absence of His greatest affection, keened for the one who was meant to receive His kindness, patience, favor.  The estrangement was more than Love could bear and so He did surrender all the joy of Heaven.  He did turn His face from everlasting light.  And He came to rescue us here on Earth where the enemy trafficks us in squalid alleys of despair and darkness.  Jesus paid the ransom, then for good measure, crushed the captor and restored us to our first beauty.  In the end, Love didn’t fail us.  

There are days when I look back on my early misgivings about love and cringe.  So much wasted time, so much unnecessary stress and toil.  Sometimes I wish I could start all over and get it right from the jump, giving both Bob and me an album of happy memories about those first months of marriage instead of the journey derailed that took us both by surprise.  But I’m slowly learning to see value in the weak spots of life’s construction.  Those are the points, when I’m frustrated and hopeless because I’ve got it all wrong, that God comes alongside and shows me how He got it all right.  How He bears the burden of success and only asks that I receive His affection while He works all things for my good. 

It’s an upside-down way of living, this being beloved.  It makes no sense to a world that still clamors for a leading role to play in the love story of life.  But having been through a few seasons of it now and having acquired a bit of wisdom in matters of the heart, love isn’t the puzzle it once was.  I now see that the most coveted role is that of understudy to the Master.  It’s best to find a spot to sit at His feet.  To rivet your hearing to His words alone.  To allow yourself, as unqualified and unpresentable as you may be, to receive all the goodness that He desires to give you.  The secret is this.  Those who love best are those who never find the bottom of God’s love for them. 

We love because He first loved us.
1 John 4:19


  1. You are such a beautiful spirit! I expect no less from the woman Bob gave his heart to! Thank you for sharing your heart.

    1. Thank you, Stephanie :-) He gets most of the credit for keeping us running smoothly....I add plenty of drama, er, flavor though!