It was an hour drive between Charlottesville and Richmond on a day that my wedding rings hadn’t yet worn a ridge into my finger. This was a blink compared to our longer road trips, but something about no exit plan at a highway pace made our car a recurring greenhouse for marriage growth.
Some of my best memories happened over “windshield time”, as a dear friend coined these free dates.
But best to me, then, was not how I’d define best now. What I now see as best was often “worst” for me then. I’d renamed conflict, “trouble”, and couldn’t see how these relational rifts were opportunities if we walked them out. (I’d mastered avoiding pain.)
So here we were, again. One small comment of his, interpreted hastily by me, and our car was full of words we’d regret and long sighs that said much more than even those words themselves.
We’d developed a pattern, a habit of conflict. It was a groove in the road that if our conversation ventured over it, it would likely find its way into it. This day was no different.
Except for one thing.
This day, I heard him.
After minutes of round-and-round the same marital rub, Nate said words I’m sure he’d said before but I heard, anew.
“You never really say I’m sorry.”
“You are quick to defend and often have a reason behind why you’ve done what you’ve done to hurt me. But I rarely feel heard by you.”
Something broke through the sheen of self-preservation I’d formed around my understanding of myself. Defense came out from the dark corners and into the unforgiving stage-light. A girl who doesn’t know that she is loved despite what she does could build a whole life around fierce self-defense.
I couldn’t be wrong because what really happened to those people who were wrong, those who stumbled without recovery? I’d formed a definition of love — His love for me — that couldn’t hold the weight of me. For love to be love, how I defined it, I had to be someone else. Flawless. And my marriage exposed it.
I guarded a lie.
And fought him, fierce, any time he came near to it.
But that one day, on that one-hour drive, my chest heaved relief when I felt that warm wet cloth of His washing over my relentless defense.
Those words – I was wrong, will you forgive me? — to him, and to Him, emancipated something long-locked.
Repentance is the lynch-pin for communion.
I think I felt His breath that day.
It took me four days to connect the dots.
What is it about this week? I moaned to Nate. Three out of four wheels are squeaky, was my SOS. It was normal to have one kid out-of-sync on a given day. A more rare two and I felt the burden. But three?
Three was bad parenting, right? Something had to be wrong with me, I inhaled all these thoughts without filter.
They squeaked and I wanted to cry. Their behavior was less concerning to me than my response. If they were stumbling to stand, I’d barely gotten off the ground. This mom, whose currency for parenting is delight, was feeling anything but delight over her children. I may have buttoned it up outside but He knew my insides.
“I’m sorry, Father.” I whispered it over the sink and said it out loud in my bedroom and professed it in my morning, quiet. This phrase was my name, this week.
And a strange thing happened.
This was not a banner week for my motherhood. If I was in the business of sin management, I’d flat failed. But my flesh felt the odd sensation of being folded into something — Someone — so unlike what I deserved. He hovered. And after each one of my “I’m sorry, Father’s” I became more mindful of Him. Is it possible that in a week, round-bellied with missteps and wanderings and all sorts of errors, I might feel Him, near?
Is this really You, drawing near to my mess? Could one of my worst weeks in a long time, instead, be a best?
That’s when I made the connection.
Days earlier, I’d started on a new prayer-trek. This one who falls way short of big goals and lofty resolutions has needed to start having my heart and mind won back, minute by minute. So I pray “tiny prayers” (a phrase I’ve stolen) in my otherwise unclaimed minutes — up the stairs and on the ten minute drive and out to get the mail — and I form a new groove of thinking in my mind, all throughout my day, not just in my morning kick-start.
I use acronyms — they help me remember when my Bible or my moleskin journal (where I’ve scribbled them down) are not near. This week I’d begun a new one: S-T-R-E-N-G-T-H-E-N. Prayers over my insides, my inner man. And the “R”, it was repentance.
“a broken and contrite heart — these, O God, You will not despise” Psalm 51:17
I didn’t expect, however, that to pray for that kind of heart would mean that the stuff, buried deep under my flesh’s casing, would need to brim up and over.
Apparently, their wheels needed to squeak, this particular week, for my heart to kneel.
Repentance incites the refreshing of God for which we thirst. God-led repentance (not the drudging up of every failure for which we flog ourselves and then label repentance) is Love’s invitation.
My knees hit the floor and His Love showers the parts of my flesh I seek to scrub clean, myself. Communion happens at the alter, the one on which He is the offering for all of the dark parts of me.
I used to despise my marriage on the days where my sin was revealed, and I’m tempted to bemoan my motherhood on the days where the dark-sludge that has lined my insides bubbles up and over. But how is this thinking any different than the world’s? To live His upside-down kingdom — not just talk of it or study it or sing about it — we need see the gloriously-kind God who leads us in opportunities to repent.
Because it’s in a life, bowed, that we find a Daddy — the one who scoops our limp bodies off the ground where we landed, cleans the gravel out of those cuts, and says “sweetheart, I kiss the place where you broke.” Its here that sin is taken out of its orbit. Repentance breaks sin’s cycle.
Could it be that His goodness is most glorious in the very moments — these opportunities to repent of what has been buried, deep — that we viscerally avoid?
If I redefine success as floorboards worn thin, walls that heard “I’m sorry, Father”, daily and then some, and flesh that felt the press of His flesh against it — flesh that was undeservedly, yet majestically overshadowed — I might have the chance at a wildly successful life.
God-initiated success liberates parts of me I didn’t even know were captive.
It’s this perspective on repentance, and on the God who receives it, that makes me want to see and confess my sin, rather than fiercely defend it.
Tiny Prayers Made Practical: A life gets changed in the minutes. In the day of flash-pot attention spans produced by endless streams of information, it takes me slicing life down to “minutes” to see mind-and-heart change as palatable.
I’ve prayed others’ lists and recently started making my own. Acronyms that I can remember linked to verses which I want to have work their way into my insides help win back the places in my mind and heart where my flesh has squatted. I start with a small goal — pray this acronym once a day — not to win His approval, I already have it — but to win my mind to His thoughts.
I write it in my own pen and carry my Bible, cracked open, or my moleskin journal that can be easily tucked under my arm or propped on my bathroom vanity. I print this paper and tuck it in the pocket of my running shorts to pray during my cool-down. I pick up where I left off, all day long. I pray this for me, for him, and for them.
And, as evidenced by the week that all my wheels squealed, He responds.
My weak prayers move His heart and they change mine, minute-by-minute.
[Click here to download S-T-R-E-N-G-T-H-E-N. in pdf, or use the image below.]
And a note: Nate and I have accepted the invitation to speak at a conference for adoptive parents — those in the midst of the process and those knee-deep in the life of folding them in after you’ve brought them home. We’re honored to speak to families in such a hallowed time, their adoption. We’ll be sharing more along the lines of what I write about here on this blog, through our lens as adoptive parents. In just a few days, registration will open — Wednesday, October 3rd at 11:59. (The retreat is limited to only 50 couples.) If this might be up your alley, check out Together Called for more details. We’d love to see you there!
First through sixth photos compliments of Mandie Joy. (She even took my prayer list and prettied it up for me!)