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Between a Rock and a Grace Place
divine surprises in the tight spots of life
By Carol Kent
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2010 Carol Kent
All rights reserved.
Grace in the Hardest of Places
SURPRISED BY FAITH
I know God will not give me anything I can't handle. I just wish he didn't trust me so much.
My heart was doing cartwheels in my chest. I was sure I must be having a heart attack. First I took long, deliberate breaths. Then I coughed hard, thinking that would jolt the fist-sized pump inside my chest into functioning properly. It was the week before our son's trial for first-degree murder. Even though he had already been given seven other trial dates, followed by seven postponements, I thought, It's really going to take place this time.
Gene and I were tired — bone tired. Tired of waiting to know what the future held for our only child and tired of the stress and constant anxiety. There were days when I wished I could go to sleep and not wake up. I was weary from being an advocate for my son at the county jail as he awaited a trial date, and I was sick of responding to questions from reporters, acquaintances, and especially from nosey individuals who wanted information they could share with other people.
I had not taken a break from speaking following Jason's arrest — not because I was deeply spiritual, but because working hard helped to numb the pain, and ministry was our livelihood, the only way we could pay for our son's attorney. But we had been warned not to speak publicly about what had happened until after the trial. I had been saying out loud, "God, you are good! You are trustworthy!" But was I saying those things because they were programmed into me by my family and my ministry background, or because I really believed them?
Thirty months after our son's arrest in Florida, his trial began, and five days later, he was convicted and sentenced for first-degree murder. We returned home to Michigan weighed down with fear for our son's safety in prison, apprehensive about the future for his family and ours, uncertain about how to begin the appeal process, incredulous that we could be living a story that was so foreign to our former life, shocked that our prayers seemed useless, and overwhelmed by questions we couldn't answer. How could we encourage our son from so far away? How could we give tangible support to his wife and two young stepdaughters? Now that I could speak from a public platform about the trial, could I tell such an intense story without falling apart? I had always prided myself on not being one of those "overly emotional" speakers.
Instead of getting better after the trial, the wild heartbeats and calisthenics in my chest got worse. Even when I tried to rest, there was something wrong. Sleep was elusive, and I couldn't deny that my heart was skipping beats or, at the least, beating in an abnormal way. At Gene's insistence, I made an appointment with a cardiologist to find out if my heart was malfunctioning. My father had already had two bypass surgeries, so perhaps the real culprit was genetic. Following an EKG and a stress test, I prepared myself for what was sure to be bad news from the specialist.
On the day of the follow-up appointment, the nurse led me to a private room where Gene and I waited for the doctor. When he sat down with us, he said, "Carol, the test results have come back, and I have good news for you. Your heart is fine." I felt relief, coupled with confusion. Then what is wrong with me? I wondered. I could feel my heart beating erratically even as I sat before the cardiologist, having received a clean bill of health. The physician continued. "I know you are going through a lot right now. The symptoms you have been experiencing are not uncommon in people who are under this much stress. Based on a thorough evaluation of your physical health and an understanding of how the human body can respond to stress, I can conclude that you are suffering from severe panic attacks."
I was flabbergasted by the report. How was it possible that my anxiety was so out of control? Didn't I trust God enough? Wasn't I clinging to the biblical truths I'd known from my earliest years in Sunday school? I had memorized many of the "fear not ..." Scripture verses, and I had not given up on my faith, even after Jason's conviction. Or had I? Was my faith as strong as I thought it was? Did I still feel sure that God loved me and that he was working things out for my good and for the good of my family members? Did I believe God was just and kind? Or were these foundational convictions slowly disintegrating? My son was not a threat to society at large. He had acted out of overwhelming fear for his stepdaughters' safety. I did not believe he was in his "right mind" in the days and weeks leading up to his devastating actions. That didn't justify my son's crime, but if God knew Jason's true heart, why didn't he intervene in the legal process so that Jason's sentence would one day allow him to walk in freedom? Did God really care about any of us?
Questions of Faith and Conviction
In the years since Jason's arrest and conviction, I have heard from many people with faith questions of their own.
* * *
I have a broken heart and shattered dreams. My only child was killed in an automobile accident last spring. Where was God?
* * *
My autistic son is driving me crazy and ruining my marriage. I love him so much, but I don't know how we can deal with him anymore. I am losing my ability to cope. Why did God allow my child to be born with this condition?
* * *
My husband gave me a sexually transmitted disease while denying he has been involved in an ongoing affair with a woman who works in his office. He maintained his innocence until I caught him in the act. He says he loves me and doesn't want to lose our family. He must think I'm an idiot. Does God expect me to forgive my husband and stay married to him?
* * *
When I was sixteen I had an abortion. For the past twelve years I have been dragging around invisible chains of shame and guilt. I've asked for God's forgiveness, but I still feel like a murderer. Why don't I have enough faith to believe that I can really be set free from my wrong choices in the past?
* * *
We raised our son in a Christian home, but he is drunk and high more than he is clean and sober. We have exhausted our savings accounts with the cost of treatment centers. Every time he gets involved in a recovery program he's OK for a short while, and then we go through the entire ordeal all over again. My child was raised in the church, and he always got excellent grades. We did a good job of parenting him, but his choices are always destructive. Why do some alcoholics and addicts get well while others don't? Why won't God heal our child?
* * *
My older sister, my mother, and her mother are all breast cancer survivors. Because of our family history, I made the wrenching decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy three years ago. I just found out that I have ovarian cancer. My prognosis is not good. I am only thirty-four years old, and I have two daughters. My entire family is praying for my healing, but we are devastated. I don't know what to think anymore about trusting God, much less what to tell my girls. I'm afraid that if I don't make it, they will lose not only their mother but their faith as well.
* * *
My mother was brutally raped and killed by a man who was strung out on drugs. She was only thirty-eight years old, and I was only thirteen when I lost her. Her murderer just wrote a letter to me, asking for forgiveness. I am a Christian, but I don't know if I am capable of responding to this man and granting his request. I feel so bitter.
Stuck between a Rock and a Hard Place
Since I've been writing and speaking about our journey with our son, Gene and I have received hundreds of letters from people who find themselves up against impassable obstacles. Something has happened to them or to their loved ones that is painful, shameful, or life altering — and sometimes unfair, cruel, or previously unimaginable. One day life is normal and full of promise, and the next day the phone rings, or the accident happens, or the deceit is uncovered, or the mental breakdown occurs, or the police officer knocks on the door, or the doctor shakes his head as he walks out of the operating room — and the comfortable, happy, and "normal" life you were leading is abruptly interrupted or completely derailed.
You have been stopped in your tracks. You are up against a rock in the path of your life that appears gigantic in its magnitude. You can't get around it. You can't get through it. You can't negotiate your way to a more favorable result. The damage has been done. The lies have been revealed. The disease has wrecked havoc. The baby cannot be placed back in the womb. The accident report cannot be rewritten. The clock cannot be turned back. The shame or guilt is unbearable. The losses are staggering. Your faith has been tested. You are questioning long-held beliefs about the goodness and mercy of God. You are stuck between a rock and a place that feels very hard indeed.
After my son was arrested for murder, I was deeply perplexed over what had gone on in his mind prior to his crime. Gene and I were involved parents who knew we had raised our child to know right from wrong. Throughout Jason's growing-up years, we watched him make mostly good choices. He never got into fights at school and didn't get caught up in the drug culture during a time when many of our friends were dealing with unexpected and sometimes unlawful behavior by their children. Jason was a peacemaker, not a violent person. We felt blessed, and we were optimistic about his future. He cared about making a positive difference in the lives of others and had compassion for people who were abused and mistreated. Our son wasn't perfect, but he was heading in a positive direction, and we were proud of him. What possibly could have led him to believe he was so "stuck" in the middle of a crisis that he had no choice but to take matters into his own hands?
In one of his letters to us, written several years after his arrest, he explains some of the erosion of his thought process. In retrospect, he sees clearly that he responded to a daunting challenge with fearful desperation rooted in self-reliance. "In short," he told us, "the reason I am in prison today for killing a man is that I trusted in myself and doubted God."
The Bible states that "faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." It means putting all our hopes, dreams, and fears into the hands of God, even though we have no way of knowing how a personal challenge will turn out. It is relinquishing control of the outcome of whatever concerns us.
When the obstacle in our path is monstrous in size or character, choosing faith in what we do not see can feel risky and unnatural — even opposed to common sense. My son says that he could not see choosing this kind of faith as an option by the time he committed his crime. He was driven by his obsessive fear. But, as the woman whose story you're about to read discovered, choosing to trust God instead of oneself can be the wisest, most liberating, and most important decision of our lives.
Crazy! — Claudine's Story
I slammed the phone down, covered my ears, and screamed at the top of my lungs, "I'm going to hell!"
My son was two years old. My husband had spent the past year training for a new job in another city, often working eighty hours a week. And I was going crazy!
I had noticed the emotional changes in me shortly after our son was born. I knew it wasn't uncommon for new mothers to go through a period of anxiety and depression after childbirth, so I chalked up my experience to the "baby blues" and waited for the emotions to pass.
Instead, they got worse. I couldn't seem to accomplish anything. As a woman who had always been strong and capable of multitasking, I was now a broken, lost, fearful, and weepy mess. The simplest tasks, like washing dishes, picking up a to-go cup left over from lunch, doing laundry, or even carrying my son's diaper to the trash, became practically impossible. It was so bad that my mother's first action upon entering my home would be to grab a trash bag and begin picking up the mess.
I was tired all the time, but couldn't sleep. I was sad, yet had a beautiful blue-eyed boy to make me laugh. I was afraid of what was happening to me, but too afraid to tell anyone. I cried constantly, apologized for everything, and was convinced I was losing my mind.
I was fighting physical illness as well. If it wasn't bronchitis, it was strep throat, or a urinary tract infection, or a skin rash. I was chronically ill. And none of the doctors I went to could tell me what was wrong. I was on antibiotics weekly. It seemed that one infection would leave only to be replaced by another. I was completely run-down — in body, mind, and spirit.
Frightened, I finally sought help at a well-known medical clinic in a nearby city. I was put through the paces of a thorough physical, complete with multiple diagnostic procedures for virtually every major organ in my body. The medical experts' conclusion: "You're healthy as a horse." They couldn't find anything significantly wrong with me.
Now I really knew I was crazy. I shouldn't be sick. And everyone else would be better off without me.
For the rest of that week, I planned how to run away. I believed that if I could leave for a few months, just disappear where no one could find me, I could somehow heal my weary body and mind. So I plotted. When to leave (the next week), where to go (to a resort area with lots of people so I'd blend in), how to tell my family that I was OK but convince them not to look for me (through my good friend, Suzanne), how to get there (this was hardest because I didn't want to leave a trail), what work to do (housekeeping at a hotel — certainly the last place anyone would look), how to hide (by talking to no one). As the week went on, all these thoughts and plans became real. I was going to do it. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that my husband and son would be better off after I was away from them.
The day I screamed at the top of my lungs was a turning point. It started out like every other day: play with my son, read books, run a few errands. As usual, I hadn't slept much the night before, so when nap time came I was eager to get Logan down for a snooze.
Logan, however, had a different idea. That day, no matter what I did, he would not lie down. Lying on his back on my bed, he stuck his little feet up for me to pull his socks off. Hooking my finger in the socks I began to pull ... at the same time he began to kick. He was just playing. But I snapped. Yanking him up by the socks, I held him upside down, over the bed, and began to shake him, screaming, "YOU HAVE GOT TO TAKE A NAP. MOMMY NEEDS A NAP!"
I only shook him for a moment, but I was so out of control I terrified myself. He was still screaming as I eased him back down to the bed. Lying down beside him I wept, saying over and over, "Mommy's sorry. Mommy's sorry." I had never done anything like that before. I never wanted to again.
Frantically, I called my father-in-law and said, "Someone had better come and get this kid before I hurt him." Ten minutes later, Papa Bob showed up in his green truck to take Logan for the day.
I stood there and watched them drive away. Tears were streaming down my face. Everyone said there was nothing wrong. It was all in my head. But I knew that something was desperately wrong. I just didn't know how to fix it.
I picked up the phone and called my mom. She wasn't home. I called Dad's office. Not there. I called my friend Suzanne. Not home. I wanted to find someone ... anyone ... to pray for me. I dialed more than a dozen numbers and got only answering machines or busy signals. I was all alone.
That's when I slammed down the phone and screamed. I didn't just think I was going to hell; I thought I was already there.
I lay down on the bed, curled up into a ball, and sobbed. "I can't take any more, God. What is wrong with me? I go to church three times a week. I do all the things I'm supposed to do. Why are you letting all this happen? Why don't you do something?!"
It seemed like I had lain there all day, but it was probably just a few hours. I felt completely immobilized. I no longer had the momentum to carry out my plan to run away, yet I could see no path forward. I was stuck — flattened between an immovable obstacle and the hardest place I had ever been in my life. The enemy was whispering in my ear that I could not be well, that I would never be better. The obstacle was my illness — whatever it was — and the hard place was my intractable despair. Or so I thought. But God was reminding me that even in this crushing, airless space, he was with me. In fact, he was right in front of me. It was as if he was saying, "Claudine, if you really want to get better, you need to press even harder into me."
Excerpted from Between a Rock and a Grace Place by Carol Kent. Copyright © 2010 Carol Kent. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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