‘How’s Your Heart?’ she asks Jonah

Fear and unwillingness to trust God left me as vulnerable as Jonah to tempests, whales, and even a habit of complainting about the heat.

I met this gal when a friend introduced us, having noted some parallels in our journeys. This woman’s husband had made a public change in his life; mine expected I would help him keep a secret. Still, our marriages to Christian leaders took surprisingly similar turns on the way to our divorces.

And after reading just a few emailed paragraphs of my raw agony, my new acquaintance asked me, “How’s your heart?”

That was more than a year ago, and I’m not sure I can say yet that it is well. Some days it pumps just fine. Some days it feels like all the life has poured out of me. Death has been ripping at me. It feels like it is tearing from me atonement for my various sins, not the least of which was choosing marriage over meaning.

But “How’s your heart?” she asks, and it’s not about whether the organ is pumping. It’s not about whether I can get up today, whether I’ll hide behind my keyboard at work instead of facing the public. It’s not even a question about whether I’ll put on my big girl panties and call a few someones again tonight (after last night’s series of calls went to voice mails, then prompted instant messenger briefs: “Sorry, busy … send email?”).

What she wants to know is: Where am I with God?

And oh my goodness, do I have a clue?

Jonah is tossed overboard in this detail of an illuminated manuscript from a British library.

I say, with Jonah:

“You hurled me into the depths,
    into the very heart of the seas,
    and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
    swept over me.

I have been banished
    from your sight;
yet I will look again
    toward your holy temple.” (Jon. 2:3-4)

Like Jonah, I ran from what I knew God was asking of me, and I found myself in terrifying depths that I could not fathom.

Twofold calling, twice rejected

For me, the sense of calling was twofold and the rejection of God also dual.

I had long felt called to a particular city, where I had been living for many years. I was asked to consider a ministry position there with an organization I highly valued, following a long tenure with a large regional ministry.

I turned down the job because it would require raising my own support. As a first-generation Christian from a working-poor family, I didn’t see myself as someone with the social networks that would provide monthly and quarterly gifts. As a single woman, I didn’t see myself as a person who should take a risk at that order of magnitude. I’d already bottomed my accounts once. It wasn’t an experience I wanted to repeat.

So I rejected my sense of calling out of financial fear. Much worse, I turned away from the love of God because I wanted a different love.

The love of God or the love of a man?

Now for those of you who don’t deal in the experiential versions of Christian faith, what I’m about to say will sound like so much gobbledygook. So be it.

Back in those days, one of my best friends had taught me to create a consistent space and ritual for prayer. This was helpful because whenever I would sit in a certain spot and see my fat candle burning and open my Bible, I would wait in what had rapidly become a habitual expectation that God and I were going to meet. And among the nights that I sat on the cotton rug beside my single woman’s bed in the apartment I shared with two other single women,  there were nights when I knew beyond any doubt that God was present. One evening in particular, God addressed me in the kind of overpowering experience that Dwight Moody describes.

You remember Moody’s story. All the bricks and mortar of his ministry had been destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. He went to New York City to solicit funds to rebuild from wealthy friends there. Then, as Christianity Today tells it, “while walking down Wall Street, he felt what he described as ‘a presence and power’ as he had never known before, so much that he cried aloud, ‘Hold Lord, it is enough!’ ”

Dwight Moody

“I have had more trouble with myself than with any man I have met,” said 19th century American evangelist Dwight L. Moody. I so identify!

A similar presence, similar power, filled my single woman’s room that night. I felt so much love flowing through me that I knew I needed nothing else.

And given the choice between a great love that removed all need and my own desire to be married, I told myself and God:

“With a love like this, I wouldn’t care whether I got married. And I want to be married.”

The flood of love vanished. I was again alone in my room with my Bible and my candle and my cotton rag rug.

A couple years later, I met a church elder from a different part of the US at an international conference. A couple weeks afterward, he told me God had told him he should court me because I was going to be his wife. Actually, the exact words he believed he heard from God were, “I knew you wanted a woman who laughs.”

I was dubious. Still, over 18 months, with the encouragement of almost all of my Christian friends, he won me. We married in a celebration that one of the guests said was the “most worshipful” wedding he had ever attended.

Human love means human pain

But the marriage began going south as fast as our life together began. I convinced myself that it was spiritual warfare. There was no other explanation I could let myself believe for a marriage that included, in the first five months:

  • falling through the front steps of my new husband’s home
  • one leg of the sofa falling through the living room floor
  • two screens falling out of their window frames
  • the mixer dying
  • the television dying
  • the borrowed replacement mixer dying
  • the lawnmower dying
  • the pull-cord pulling completely out of the borrowed replacement lawnmower
  • a huge cockroach running out of a pillowcase as I made the bed

Then Hurricane Fran turned out the lights and turned off the water for 11 days … during which time a middle-of-the-night phone caller informed me that the single woman who had lived in the bedroom adjoining my single woman’s bedroom until my marriage had taken her life.

And once the floodwaters receded from the storage unit where most of my New England life had been temporarily shelved, almost a third of my earthly possessions had been destroyed.

Paying my vow doesn’t pay the price

Unlike Jonah, I didn’t know I had any way to jump this ship. Jonah had only refused to preach in a particular city. I had turned away from the calling I knew to be mine and toward what Christians in my era liked to believe was almost every Christian woman’s calling. I found a Christian man and got married. A Christian leader, no less. And marriage is one of those choices that is irrevocable. I’d made a vow before God; I had to pay it.

People talk about finding God when they reach the end of themselves.
Can there ever be an “end” when you’re the only person managing
the tiller and the sails and paying for the provisions and the marina berth?

People talk about finding God when they reach the end of themselves. I’m not sure that any of the near-retirement divorcees I know has much chance to get past our ends, however frayed they may become. It’s hard to feel like you get to quit when you’re the only person managing the tiller and the sails and paying for the provisions and the marina berth. Sometimes you can anchor for a while, but still you feel like you’re the one who has to manage the boat.

Who directs the overwhelming flood?

Of course, Jonah learned differently. Experienced sailors were crewing him away from his calling in Nineveh, and God still managed to whip up a storm that terrified them. They were terrified enough to toss Jonah off the boat into the raging waves.

And that’s kind of where I am. Tossed out of the not very sturdy boat that was my marriage, my cries ignored by the not very attentive Body that was our church (and, in the ways these things so often happen, is still his church and his employer). I want to “look again to your holy temple,” but the temple where I worshiped is desecrated by a man who lives his secret sin and fellow leaders who don’t know him well enough to care.

So I try to find my way back to something that might be like a new beginning. I live close to my family now. After visiting a few churches, I’ve joined a congregation where I feel some measure of “at home. ” I have a job where I do something of value. I’ve begun to meet some people. The oldest of my brothers — still 16 months younger than me — has taken on the responsibilities of a patriarch in the guise of an executor. He has settled me into our late parents’ home as “caretaker” of the property until he has bandwidth to consider selling it.

Stone Heart Wall

The heart of stone is “just another brick in the wall.”

So how is my heart? Still painful. Still tender. Still achingly ready to shriek at any careless touch. I find myself thinking about Prometheus as he endured his endless torment.

Prometheus, you may recall, stole fire from the other gods for the use of mere mortals. For this, he was condemned by Zeus — the God above all other Greek gods — to endure the rest of his immortal life in chains. Each day, wild birds attacked him and tore out his liver — believed in that culture to be the seat of passionate emotion. Each day, his immortal body regenerated a new liver. Each day, the birds again tore him apart.

My “seat of emotion” also feels torn. I have yet to find the time where I feel even a measure of safety and security during much of most days. I suppose I’m sitting on my hillside like Jonah: in fact secure but preoccupied with my own sense of discomfort, complaining when things aren’t entirely to my will, unwilling to allow that God has — appropriately! — his own concerns about things besides my wishes, things like all of that great city, its population and its production.

prometheus in Chains

This 21st century illustration of Prometheus chained ties him to a huge stone forearm and hand — suggesting that he is closer to the hand of God than he might imagine.

Unlike Prometheus, my atonement has an end. My God forgives. The kind of cruel punishment that Prometheus experienced, God chose to suffer on my behalf when Jesus was fastened to a cross and died in the hot sun. Jonah’s complaints about the loss of a shady vine seem silly by comparison. Perhaps someday I will truly understand how silly my own complaints and fears are as well. Perhaps, too, I will truly remember that unlike Prometheus, my own immortal God is unbound. Weeping may endure for a very long and dark night, but joy comes. The resurrected and free God promises it.

I hope that someday my heart and liver and all the other parts of me find our way back to the place where God is not just present — as God is, in all times and places — but tangibly so. And if I do not again enjoy the experience of a tangible divine love in our own body, may I find it anew in an ability to offer God’s love to others, as Jesus did to us.

For others who are living in difficult moments, please consider reading Meadow Rue Merrill’s “Redeeming Ruth.” It is a remarkable memoir of a family’s great love for their disabled child, and how God’s love continues to redeem the great suffering her loss engendered. It is the story of a specific suffering, but offers God’s kind touch to many kinds of pain.

redeeming ruth

About Carlene Hill Byron

The former editor of New England Church Life and The New England Christian, Carlene Hill Byron is enjoying being home in Maine after 20 years in North Carolina. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild. Find her at christianpurposeblog.wordpress.com, churchandmentalillness.wordpress.com and on Facebook at MyHouseHasHistory.
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2 Responses to ‘How’s Your Heart?’ she asks Jonah

  1. Heidi Smid says:

    Speechless Carlene. Thank you for sharing from your very vulnerable heart, the messiness and hardness of life mixed with faith in God’s promises. Isaiah 43:1-3 is what comes to my mind. The intensity of suffering, the feeling that we are in freefall and will hit bottom and shatter at any moment. And yet, those everlasting arms! His majesty rides the clouds to rescue us, his everlasting arms are beneath us, we are not in freefall, he will drive out the enemy before us. Rescue and redemption. Praise His holy name and His Father’s heart toward His children.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Carlene, so much to digest here. Really. So much vulnerability here. “Weeping may endure for a very long and dark night, but joy comes. The resurrected and free God promises it.” That is the hope for all of us! Our stories may differ but the wrestling with God is an experience we all endure.

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