In 1988 my life went through a major upheaval. Although I had regularly attended church as a child and had even accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior at age 17, I didn’t really mature as a Christian until I was much older. I had to go through a personal health crisis to really understand letting go of my control and turning everything over to Christ. And through that came a realization that healing of my soul and spirit would come only through forgiveness.
At 37 I was happily married with two children. (I had been married previously with disastrous results.) Bob and I felt that our life was really perfect. We got along beautifully, doing almost everything together. We both had good jobs and were fairly secure financially. Our children were good kids. We had lots of friends and entertained frequently. We even had a nice “nest egg” of savings to help in an emergency.
Bob had also supported me and loved me in ways I had never had from any man in my life. His shoulders were broad enough to carry the emotional baggage I had brought into our marriage.
We did not go to church, however. While I often hungered to be closer to God, Bob did not have the same feelings. Having been raised in the Catholic Church, his only experience with religion was of a stern and punishing God. Church was always a chore to him and he had no desire to be closer to God.
In addition, Bob is one of these people who always tried to do the right thing. He is “just and fair”, so he felt that being a “good person” was enough. Because he didn’t understand the concept of “grace” as opposed to “works”, he didn’t know that his being a good person was not sufficient for salvation. And, unfortunately, I wasn’t knowledgeable enough myself or mature enough in my Christian walk to explain the difference to him.
While Bob didn’t prohibit my going to the church of my choice — he did not encourage it either. And, because of our lifestyle of doing everything together, it just didn’t seem right to go without him.
Then God decided to wake me up a bit.
On March 15, 1988, both Bob and I came down with what we thought was the flu. The difference was that Bob recovered and got well, I did not.
Over the next several months, my health rapidly deteriorated to a point that I was almost completely bedridden. Whenever we did go out, I was frequently in a wheelchair because I was too frail to walk any distance.
I was hospitalized on several occasions. Twice I was put in the intensive care unit; once I was in the coronary care unit. Various parts of my body, to include my heart and kidneys, progressively shut down. I had every imaginable invasive procedure done in an attempt to reach a diagnosis. I was tested for every known virus. I had specialists for every function of my body. It was all to no avail. My internist later told me that I was literally dying in front of his eyes and he was unable to help me.
Our “perfect life” slowly became unraveled by my illness. Every activity hinged on whether or not I would be up to participating. My children would kiss me good-bye in the morning as they left for school and then return in the afternoon to find me just as they left me – lying in bed. Our savings was rapidly dwindling.
Six months after I first became ill, I found myself again in the intensive care unit. I had experienced a grand mal seizure and my condition was critical. As I lay there I made what I call my “foxhole promise” to God. I promised Him that if I was ever well enough, I would return to church and begin my journey back to Him. (Although it may seem insignificant, this was no small promise. I was so disabled that I had no idea how I would get myself to church. I didn’t think that Bob would take me. But I had faith that God would work it out.)
Three weeks later I sat in my doctor’s office almost completely recovered!! Dr. Emery looked at me and said that he didn’t recognize me as the same woman who had been in the hospital three weeks earlier and who had been coming to him almost daily for months. I looked and felt well. I told him that God had healed me. This man of science stared at me and said that he couldn’t disagree. He went on to say that there was nothing that he or any of the specialists had done, no procedure that they had performed, no treatment, no medication, that could account for my recovery. If I said it was a miracle, he was not going to doubt me.
A few weeks later, I went to Calvary Bible Church to fulfill my promise to God. My daughter was already involved in the High School ministry there and I figured that Calvary was as good a place as any to start. A few months later, our son starting coming to church and less that two years later, Bob joined us and subsequently accepted Christ as his own personal Savior. We were active in the Calvary family for almost 13 years.
If the story ended here, it would be a tremendous testimony to God’s healing power and grace. However, while I had asked for God to heal my body, God also knew that there was a hurt, angry, little girl inside of me who was tremendously in need of healing as well.
You see, I was abused as a child. My father was violent man who often beat my mother, brother and me. In addition, my grandfather also sexually abused me off and on from before the age of 5 until age 16.. As a result of this, to this day I have blocked out almost all memories of my childhood – even the good ones. I spent most of my life building up walls so that people could not know the real me. I knew that if they found out about the real me, they would be as disgusted with me as I was. I still have difficulty with being physically touched. Even when Bob and I first married, I kept waiting for him to betray and hurt me. Every man that I had ever loved had done so, so I expected that Bob would do the same. It took him years to gain my trust.
During my illness, my relationship with my father, while always volatile, had exacerbated to a point that we could barely tolerate one another. Most encounters ended up with a screaming match. Phone calls ended with one of us hanging up on the other. It had reached a point that I was consumed with rage against him – even when we weren’t speaking. While I am unable to remember most of my childhood, I was somehow able to remember every “wrong” – real or imagined. And I kept a mental list of these wrongs that I kept checking off as if it were a some evidence proving why I was the injured party in this relationship. I had finally decided that I was going to make a break from my father, conclusively, and tell him that he was “dead to me”. I was actually looking forward to the confrontation which I knew would happen soon.
This was where I was mentally and emotionally that morning I went to Calvary the first time, in fulfillment of my promise to God. It was very hard for me to go without Bob. He was my emotional support and my rock. I sat alone in the Worship Center – not really knowing a soul. And, who should be preaching but Dewey Bertolini. Dewey was formally the Youth Pastor at Calvary and he had gone on to be an inspirational speaker – particularly with youth groups. This particular morning, he was sharing his personal testimony.
Like me, Dewey had grown up with a controlling, horribly abusive father. Dewey and I had also accepted Christ as our personal savior at about the same age – our late teens. But unlike me, Dewey had grown in his walk with the Lord. He had actively sought to learn and become close to God. In his quest for truth, he had learned that he could not begin to accept the love and forgiveness of his heavenly Father until he was willing to love and forgive his earthly father.
I was so convicted by those words. On one hand, I was sharing with anyone who would listen that God had worked a miracle in my life and had healed me. On the other, I spoke with venomous rage and hatred against my own father. I was the worse possible witness to the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. That morning as I listened to Dewey, I was so ashamed that I cried. But this time, I was not ashamed because of the things that had happened to me. Rather I was ashamed of my own faults – the wrongs I had committed to others – and the hatred that I had harbored and nurtured in my heart. That morning, I was crucified along with Christ for the sins I had committed.
I cried as Dewey spoke about letting go of the cross of anger. He went further to speak about how sometimes we view our anger as a source of pride – a badge of honor. I felt that God was speaking directly to me through Dewey, and I was humbled by his words. Dewey explained that it could take years for us to fully forgive those who had hurt us, but that we should remember that we were already forgiven in that moment that Christ paid for our own sins on the cross.
That morning, I surrendered my anger and placed it at the foot of God. I realized that the abuse was not who I was. I was the one who had made it my identity. It may have been something that happened to me, but it was not how Christ saw me. And that morning, when I came to church to fulfill my promise to God for healing my body, the first step was taken in healing my heart and soul. The first step was taken that I might let go of my past and live.
From that point, I changed how I reacted to my father. While I could not change him, I could change how I responded to him. No longer would I argue. One person can’t fight alone and my father and I couldn’t have a fight unless I was a willing participant. As my responses to him changed, so did his responses to me. It didn’t happen overnight. I would often return to my old behavior, but I now knew how to stop myself and surrender the anger to God.
It only took a few months for my physical body to return to health. But even after 20 years, there is still much work to do with my fragile heart and soul. I realized that I must also forgive my grandfather (who died years ago) for his abuse and my first husband for his betrayal of me. That is still a work in progress.
I am humbled daily when I see how far I’ve come and how far I still have to go. I know that I will never be deserving of the sacrifice that God made for me when he sent his Son to the cross
But, remember when I said that my father and I used to end most conversations in anger? That too changed over time.
In 1998 my father had quadruple bypass surgery. While always an active man, he never fully recovered from that surgery. One Saturday while we were visiting him, he and I had some time alone together. For the first time in my life, he told me just how proud he was of me and of what I had accomplished. We parted saying goodbye in a new way. He said, “I love you, Baby.” And I said, “I love you, Daddy.”
He passed away gently in his sleep two days later.