I’ve probably said this a hundred times, to a hundred different people, in a hundred different ways. None of this is really new, none of it is really news, and yet I feel compelled to put it down in some sort of concrete form in a public place.
Brandon Heath has a song, I’m Not Who I Was, all about forgiveness and the changes that are made in our lives as a result. I first heard it when a friend shared it with me, and since then I’ve heard it on various “Christian” radio stations, and finally bought it and downloaded it so I can hear it whenever I need to.
This message, though, is less about forgiveness, and yet I feel that phrase sums it up better than almost anything. You see, we are all born one person in this life, we are all shaped by our experiences in our lives; all of our perceptions become colored by the world around us. In a very real way, we all become a specific person long before we grow into adulthood. Our families know us as that person, they learn to expect things of us based on the person they’ve watched us become, and they learn to react to us based on their understanding of our shared experiences. But if we were to remain the same person all of our lives, never growing up, never changing from our immature and incomplete understanding of things, never maturing in our relationships and our reactions, it would be a very sad, incomplete, and even wasted life. In fact, when individuals are limited to childlike development through injury or illness, we grieve that loss of potential. Just as we become a person when we are young, we must not remain that same person as we grow into adulthood.
When I say that I’m not who I was, I’m referring to that sort of healthy development and maturation, and yet even more. You see, while taking the step from childish perceptions and a selfish focus into adulthood is essential to our lives as adults, there’s another change in our lives that is often overlooked. It is what Christ preached, experiencing the second birth He spoke of to Nicodemus in John 3. If you struggle with the idea, you’re not alone; even the highly educated Nicodemus didn’t understand what “born again” meant, possibly not until after the resurrection of Christ, if even then.
I’m guessing that as you read this, you’re in one of about 3, maybe 4 camps. Maybe you’ve dismissed me already as a religious nut, in which case, I’m surprised you’re still reading. Hopefully, you’ve opted to “hear” me out, and you’ll read this to the end. After all, like the sower in the parable, all I do is plant the seed; what happens to it after that isn’t up to me. Or perhaps you’re in the second camp, where you think that you know what I’m talking about, you may even count yourself among those who claim to be “born again”. But you’ve never had a real change in your life, you’ve never understood what the big deal is, and even now you, like the previous sort of reader, are debating if you should dismiss me as a nut. If you’re in the third and fourth camps, men and women who have seen a change in your life due to faith in Christ, then I ask you to stop reading right now, get before the Father, and pray for the others reading this. When you’re done, come back (by the way, the fourth camp is folks who are saved but are more rational and logical about their faith than I am… but you can still pray, can’t you?)
I grew up in church. I have a book my mother gave me when I was really young “on the occasion of [my] baptism in the Holy Spirit”. I was baptized Catholic as an infant, have Godparents, and have attended nearly every denomination of Christian church there is. I would have described myself as a Christian all my life, even had things in my life that most would think of as “typically Christian”. Yet when I was 16, the first day of my Junior year in High School, I realized there was nothing intentional to my faith. I was floating through life, and if God was moving through me, it was despite me, not in any sort of active cooperation on my part. I claimed the name, but nothing really changed. I decided that wasn’t enough. Floating through religion wasn’t faith, and I wasn’t confident that I had been truly changed. I opted to be, as I recall the imagery being, a glove, empty and ready to be filled with the Hand of God. I wanted to live intentionally.
Now I’m not going to pretend that I was suddenly, magically without sin, or even the impulse to sin. I’ve fallen, stumbled, staggered through life since then. I was far from “pure as the driven snow” (or maybe I was… have you ever seen snow that’s been driven through? It’s black and grey and brown and nasty and filthy… and that I can identify with more than the beautiful unspoiled powder that falls in the dead of winter). I was even suicidal after that. I made serious attempts on my life even after I decided to give my life to God for His purposes, at least one of which landed me in the hospital to get my stomach pumped, and many of which grieved my husband.
You see, in many ways, I was a child in a woman’s body, physically matured, but not emotionally so. I still had deep, deep wounds from my upbringing. While I was able to see that I didn’t want to be the person I’d grown into, I didn’t know how not to be. I didn’t know where to start changing things to change the person I was. I stumbled blindly through life, and yes, through faith, and hurt people I loved in the process. But something was happening inside of me all the same, and the only thing I had to do to start the change was to admit I needed the change and that God could work it. The simple process of recognizing that I wasn’t who I wanted to be was enough to start making me over. It wasn’t an instant change. God is certainly capable of instant changes and miraculous healings of body, mind and soul. But just as a child in the womb begins to grow and change and develop without conscious effort, so too did I.
One summer, about 4 years ago, after the hardest first year of teaching, after suffering for 13 months with head pain and all of the diagnostic tests and medications to try to treat the cause and relieve the symptoms, after yet another suicidal ideation (I was considering going to a bridge just off the school property and throwing myself into the interstate traffic below because I was just so tired of it all), I began the difficult birthing process. My students, who didn’t know quite what I was going through (though a few knew more than others), rallied around me. They did the best they could to take good care of me, even as I was trying to teach them (these were high schoolers, though the burden they carried on my behalf was still unfair to them). Oh, what a blessing they were to me (and several of them continue to be)! After the school year, I went on vacations with my husband’s family, with my adoptive family, and back to see my birth family and my sister’s first child, an angel that God gave my face. Each trip reinforced that unconditional love my students had shown me. A niece who declared her love for me without any prompting moved me (still moves me) to tears. Family members who spoke of their love for me and pride in my accomplishments opened my eyes. Holding the new infant in my arms, just holding her and adoring her, was life-changing. In her, I recognized my need to be loved the way I loved her. I finally saw the light.
I did a bible study that summer and fall, one on the “Beloved Disciple” and another on “Breaking Free” (both by Beth Moore). One afternoon in October 2004, as I worked on several days of study (I’d gotten behind, again), I was brought to tears again, and I walked away from the day feeling like I had truly been born again, literally born a brand new person.
I realized that I spent my life trying to earn love, trying to earn approval, trying to earn the right to wake up the next day. No wonder I was so tired; I didn’t trust anyone’s love for me, I didn’t believe that anybody COULD love me. Even those who said they loved me, I’d doubted- they loved me for what I meant to them, and if I died, yes, they’d grieve me, but without me there to continue earning their love, they’d be able to move on with their lives, able to find better things to do with their time than deal with me. I desperately wanted the unconditional love I gave to the infant, even as I denied I was worthy of it… even as I made it conditional. And as I opened my eyes, I realized that love deserved is a lie, that true love is independent of the recipient, that I’d been created to be loved, that I was always loved, that the thing I’d most wanted all my life had been freely available to me had I only known where to look and how to see it.
I was born that day. My physical birth had been nearly 27 years earlier, and yet, I was born that day. I was the infant I’d cradled, loved, adored, new and alive. I became a new person, different than the person I’d been as a child, different than the person I’d been as an adult, different from anything I’d ever known. In a very real way, I’m really not now who I was before. I’m not who I was. I’m alive, finally really living, and not just surviving from one day to the next.
I’ve still got problems, I still struggle. That’s the nature of life with all its imperfections. But I haven’t been suicidal once since then. I’m 51 months past the last time I had suicidal ideations, past the day I wanted to leap off a bridge into oncoming traffic. In all the languages I’ve studied, I’ve never found a way to express just how different I am that fits better than being born again, born a brand new person.
One of my struggles in life, in fact, possibly the largest struggle, is how to interact with the people who knew me before I was reborn. I’ve been blessed, and most of the people I know who knew me before rejoice with me over the change. They were waiting for me to open my eyes to the truth. It’s really easy to get along with these people. Even the people I’ve met since then are easier to get along with; I am able to see them through new eyes.
At my wedding, the pastor who married us spoke of love – it was a wedding… of course he spoke about love! But something he said really stuck with me. Love multiplies joys and divides sorrows. When I share my joy with someone, love multiplies that joy through us both. They’re happy for me, and that makes me happier. We get into a recursive cycle of emotions, where just being happy makes us happy. I look forward to sharing the things that make me happy because I know that those who love me will be happy for me and with me. And sorrow shared is divided. When I share my grief (even as I’m doing now), then the one with whom I share it helps me carry the grief. They help chip away at the burden of sorrow so that it’s bearable. The encourage me, come alongside me, and buoy me up with their love. That’s love: shared joy is multiplied, shared sorrow is divided. It’s beautiful.
But there are people in my life who don’t multiply shared joys, they don’t divide shared sorrow. Their calls are always about what’s wrong in life. When I share the joys in my life, it’s countered with everything wrong in theirs. When I am foolish enough to expose my hurts, it’s added to as they tell me how much worse they are than I am. It’s gotten to the point that when I see their number on my caller ID, my heart sinks. I have physiological reactions of stress just knowing they called. And because I tend to have weird recursive emotions, the fact that someone in my life leaves me so wounded and upset upsets me. I’m deeply wounded that someone I love would wound me so.
I know I need to learn how to cope better. I know I need to learn to deal with people who hurt me in a way that I can bless them despite them. I know that I need to be a blessing to them, how desperately they need the life I’ve found. I don’t pretend that I’m blameless in this, just as I don’t pretend that I’m perfect or without mistake myself.
But none of my failings make toxic relationships less toxic. None of my mistakes make them less responsible for their end of a healthy relationship. I can do all the work on me in the world, but healthy relationships require both sides to make an effort. I can’t continue to live if the joy I’ve found is choked out of me by the endless sorrows of unhealthy relationships.
The best gift I can offer is to live well. For my father, who died when I was 17, I can live well as a testament to what he gave me. For my mother, who has lived long enough to regret her mistakes, I can live well as proof that mistakes don’t have to be fatal. For my sisters, who continue to struggle blindly through life, I can live well as an example of the path out of the darkness and offer proof of hope. I can actively seek to live in joy instead of settling for mere survival in despair.
Sadly, heartbreakingly, for now that means that I have to live without people I love in my life. It’s not that I don’t love you. It’s not even that you aren’t worthy of love. I can’t protect you, I can’t help you, I can’t change you, I can’t make your choices for you, and I can’t save you. It has never been my job, my responsibility, nor have I ever been able to change your life. At the end of the day, only you can look at your life and decide that you don’t like what you see, only you can decide it’s time for a change.
I’ve shown the way. God waits to birth new life in you, the way He did in me. I stand as testimony to the goodness of God, to the joy that life can offer. I stand the only way I know how, and I challenge you to never settle for survival. And when you’re ready to live, to really live, to really love, to risk sharing my joys instead of just dumping your problems at my feet, you can call me. I’ll be waiting. Until then – forgive me. I’m not who I was, and I won’t allow even you to hold me back from this life.