I’ve been disowned.
The letter came while I vacationed on the coast. It blew in cold and hard, and the words cut like a knife. Others have walked away before, but this is my first rejection by association. I’ve never actually been in conflict with this person, never shot them an angry look, never even remembered them with anything other than love and, sometimes, confusion. There are many things about this person that I don’t understand, but I’d never have erased them from my life or steeled my heart against allowing them a place. I am baffled. Why would anyone do something so hurtful and cold?
See, I love someone this person has chosen not to love, and so this person has thrown away our relationship, a relationship with history and great worth. I am not to call, write, or ever visit. Anything I send will be “thrown in the garbage.” The words were underlined, stripped clean of feeling. All affection appears to have been seared away, as though none existed at all. I can’t help wondering if the relationship I knew ever was real.
Love doesn’t walk away. It can’t.
Most of you who read faithfully and encourage me regularly here have never met this person, and it isn’t anyone who has ever had a presence here at all, so please set aside wondering who. Who is just a detail, and although it’s a detail that cannot be tossed aside as easily as I have been dismissed, it’s a detail I can’t share. Openness is not mine to choose for everyone who has been hurt. I was not the only one disowned.
I have pictures of this person up in my home. After the letter, my mind flashed to those images and the periodic questions I get from my children about them. In my mind, I jerked them off of shelves and lifted them from the wall. I thought of myself showing up at their door, though I couldn’t imagine exactly what words I’d say. Kevin joked that he’d show up there and pretend to be astonished about the letter and relieved to see them. “Oh, I’m so glad you’re okay!! Whew, I thought someone had kidnapped you and forced you to write that terrible letter to people who love you.”
Just after I graduated from college, I worked in an office for a year while Kevin finished his graduate work. The people who worked with me sent me all the clients they didn’t want to talk to—all the ones who called every day and got angry without being provoked, all the ones who didn’t really value our work but saw us as a means to an end. I spent my lunch hours in the break room while the rest of the employees sat at restaurants. I ate lunch I brought from home, pouring over scripture and using up pens in my journal. Sometimes during the day, I’d feel so alone and disliked that I’d take breaks so that I could go to the bathroom to cry and pray. One day, I got pulled away from my lunch to take a call from a friend with whom I’d grown up, a friend I’d been thrilled to have living near again. She quickly told me that she’d decided that she no longer wanted to spend time with me when we usually did, that she would call me if she wanted to see me. This came completely out of the blue for me. We’d had no conflicts to work through, no anger, not even anything I perceived as awkwardness (and I have a pretty good radar for that stuff). I asked her what was wrong and could we talk? But she said, “I don’t want to talk about it.” And that was it. I think the last thing I said was exactly what I felt, “Well, I don’t understand. And I’ll always be your friend.”
I haven’t heard from her since that day. I know her family, so I used to send her Christmas cards via them, determined to show her that I meant what I said and had not closed my heart to her. I always wrote something like, “I’d love to hear from you,” on the letter inside and made sure she had all of my contact information. Years of that and still no word.
Those who walk away seem to say, “I don’t love you enough to do the work. And I don’t want to know if I’ve misunderstood. And I don’t care about healing and redemption. I don’t want to forgive you.”
When Riley was small and I muddled my way tearfully through those early, confused and terribly dark days when autism meant Rain Man and my days were largely about what my baby girl wasn’t doing or couldn’t do, I had a friend I expected to be close to for years. We spent a lot of time together because we had children close in age, and we were both young moms. We confided in each other, laughed, gave each other time for other things. But things were different for Riley and me than they were for her and hers, and it seemed to make her uncomfortable that other people knew we were good friends and passed their concerned questions about my daughter to her because they couldn’t figure out how to talk to me. She never gave me a speech, she just stepped out of our lives and walked away, commenting casually later that it took a lot to make me angry because I’d never been angry at her for “what she’d done to me.” It’s not that I didn’t care when she walked away, just that I’d become so exhausted and consumed beneath the autism spectrum that I had little energy to do more than accept her turned back. Besides, I knew that autism had authored more than one broken relationship in the lives of others struggling with its challenges. I did not know if this friend had been uncomfortable with me, with Riley, or just with our confusion, frustration, and grief, but her discomfort built an invisible wall between us, and then she walked away.
I confess that in both of those cases, I did the only thing I’ve ever known how to do when people hurt me or just don’t care. I shut my heart to feeling anything for them. Dull, bland apathy settled in like a balm over the pain of rejection and dismissal. I sent the one friend Christmas cards with a few words scrawled inside, but I accepted before I ever mailed them that she’d never write or call. I decided, with tepid resolve, not to care when I saw the other friend from time to time and she offered me small talk and only showed enthusiasm when she told me about how much she liked someone else we both knew. My active response to being tossed aside has historically been to scrub my heart as clean as possible of memories and feelings.
And then the days came when I asked God to teach me how to love, and He enlarged the boundaries of my heart and showed me that loving others is always about loving Him. He pointed out that the details don’t really matter. Holding my heart in His molding fingers, He reminded me that it only matters what they think of Him, what they see of Him, that they know Him. He carved words there, like “he made himself nothing (Philippians 2:7),” and “he must become greater, I must become less (John 3:30), and “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me (Galatians 2:20),” and “you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). I began to see that loving really had very little to do with me.
So, this time, my questions for God are a bit different. What I need to know, the thing I keep asking Him, is “How do I really love my enemies? What does that really look like?” I have no questions about what He wants me to do. I know, without asking that I am called to vulnerability and activity, to never walk away, even when I am looking at someone else’s back. I hear Him, whispering to my heart,
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5: 38-48, from the Sermon on the Mount).
And I hear Him as He reminds me carefully,
Do not gloat when your enemy falls;
when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice,
18 or the LORD will see and disapprove… (Proverbs 24: 17)
I know how He feels about all this, and He still holds my heart in His hands. I’m just asking Him now to melt me and change me until I know how to love someone from behind, standing where the door is closed, staring at underlined words. What does it look like still to love someone who has disowned me?
The thing I accept already is that it will hurt, because praying for this person means I will think of them every day. It means I cannot sear an ugly scar where they used to be and refuse to feel anything for them.
My daughters know about the letter. And every night since, I’ve heard their pure voices saying to God, “Please soften their heart.” Riley often adds, in her way, “Because, I don’t like it when people are not nice.”
The thing I keep coming back to is that what I’m feeling is nothing new to Christ.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem (Isaiah 53:3).
I know He knows exactly how it feels when faces turn away without reason. But He died anyway, and that’s what doesn’t make sense to my flesh.
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
And that’s just it. Real love doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t take revenge, even for a cold heart. It doesn’t walk away. It’s long suffering.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:1-8).
Oh to love my enemies as He loved me, before I even knew why I should love Him so dearly. Oh to shake my fist at the Enemy and refuse to call the angels to save me; oh to love enough to die even for people who will spit my name out of their mouths and treat my life as a myth. Oh to love so much that I love those who will choose not to know me, who will turn away from me, who will despise me without even knowing me at all.
It isn’t that He asks me to do something He hasn’t done already when He asks me to love the ones who disown me and walk away. It isn’t that He doesn’t know how hard it will be. The night before He went to the cross, He wept bitterly and said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death (Mark 14:34).” But about one thing He was always solidly resolved, and I know I must be as well: God’s way. No other.
And I don’t yet know exactly what it will look like to love this person still, but I do know one thing without doubt: It will not be me doing the loving at all, but Him. For I no longer live, but He lives in me.
It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former S.S. man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing center at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain-blanched face.
He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message, Fraulein.” he said. “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”
His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side.
Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.
I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your forgiveness.
As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself(~Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place).