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falling forward ... into His arms of grace
By Sandi Patty
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Sandi Patty
All right reserved.
Chapter Onemeet my perfect family
It is God who arms me with strength and makes my way perfect. - Psalm 18:32
It felt so right, this moment my daughter had been dreaming about since childhood. Wasn't it yesterday she was playing princess in my white satin slip, her tiny feet precariously planted in my sparkly "stage" heels as she shuffled down the hall, an old swatch of nylon net bobby-pinned to her dark brown curls? Along with thousands of little girls throughout the ages, Anna had anticipated her wedding day, practiced it over and over in her head, and longed for it to be absolutely perfect. She'd be the perfect bride; her sweetheart, the perfect groom; both surrounded by their perfect family as they headed off into a blissfully perfect future.
The day was turning out just as she'd hoped: absolutely, positively perfect-as long as your definition of "perfect" is as broad as ours has come to be. My understanding of "perfection" has certainly changed over the last eleven years of adjusting to and enjoying a second marriage, along with our beloved blended (and sometimes, chopped and pureed) family.
As I sat in the front pew, it was such an honor, privilege, and yes, relief, to be the one sitting below the stage with my daughter as the center of attention. All eyes wereon Anna, resplendent in her elegant off-white mermaid gown. The siblings and stepsiblings were lined up as attendants, the girls looking magnificent in pale sage gowns. Anna and her handsome groom, Collin, had just knelt face-to-face at the little altar to begin taking communion. Then, something happened (doesn't something always happen at weddings?) that became a perfect metaphor for our family. Even now, the retelling leaves me alternating between laughter and tears. No matter the outward expression, my internal emotions are joy mingled with gratitude and love, plus a generous dash of sheer astonishment at this perfectly beautiful, crazy life God wrought from the ashes I laid at his feet more than a decade ago.
What happened was that my stepdaughter, Mollie, a bridesmaid and the most sensitive of our blended brood, began to get "a little green around the gills" as they say in my home state of Oklahoma and-with another nod to an Okieism-was about to go down like the Titanic on an ocean of sea-foam chiffon.
Like a well-trained rescue squad, we automatically flew into action to help the downed family member. Don (my husband) immediately stood up to retrieve his daughter and help her down to the front pew of the church, where he knelt and fanned her with a wedding program. I positioned myself near Mollie's head, where I went into nurturing mode, whispering comfort and stroking her hair. Mollie's mother, Michelle, took a place at her daughter's feet where she massaged her legs, directing the blood toward her heart. John Helvering, my ex-husband, sent someone to get orange juice to help stabilize Mollie's blood sugar. Anna and Collin were frozen in their places, looking for all the world like wedding-cake toppers with twin deer-in-the-headlight expressions, both of them caught off guard by the family sideshow unfolding in Pew #1.
The various sibs and stepsibs watched the action, waiting for a thumbs-up that Mollie was okay. It turned out Mollie had forgotten to eat that afternoon in all the excitement, and between the heat and the adrenaline, the low blood sugar just got the best of her. Eventually she felt better and decided to remain on the front pew. Anna and Collin were not about to go on until they knew Mollie was okay, but then, seasoned recoverers that we are, everyone took their places and our daughter resumed getting hitched without, well, a hitch.
Later my friend Shari would remark, "Sandi, only God could have brought about the perfect coordination of a family that had once been so fractured." She was right. Though the picture that will go in our family album will be the one where we all looked perfectly poised, coiffed, and oh-so-together, the more precious "family photo" will be the one that the camera missed but is captured for all time in my mind. It will be a picture of the whole family, extended and intimate, working as one to help a daughter and sister in need.
Families may have their squabbles but when one of their own goes down, most of us let the small stuff go and immediately band together to retrieve and revive the fallen. A family isn't unlike the units of firefighters who went in to rescue their perishing brothers when the twin towers were hit on 9-11 or the World War II soldiers from the miniseries, Band of Brothers. They may have their disputes, but when it counts-when someone is wounded (either by enemy fire or by his or her own carelessness)-families, firefighters, and soldiers stand shoulder to shoulder together in their efforts to restore the wounded one.
Now freeze-frame these pictures in your mind for a moment. A daughter faints, and a family-odd though its makeup may be-moves to help her. A team of rescue workers walk into a burning, melting hell with only one thing on their mind: to save their fallen comrades. It occurs to me that perhaps this is part of the picture Jesus had in mind for his family-his church. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends"(John 15:13).
we all fall down
As I'm settling down to write a book about falling and how to do it with grace, a nationally known and highly respected leader, adviser to the president, beloved and esteemed pastor, husband and father, has been exposed in a scandal that I'm sure will rock many circles in the weeks and months to come.
If your first reaction to hearing of a big fall by a well-known person is "Wow. Thank God I'm not that messed up," you aren't alone. It's human nature to want to compare sins and scan your world for someone who is lower on the sin totem pole than you are. I'm not sure why, but it's easier for us to play "Let's Compare" than it is simply to look at the big log in our own eye and experience the gratitude that comes when we know that Jesus still loves us just as we are, telephone pole protruding from our baby blues and all.
More and more I well up with tears of thankfulness when I come across Christ-followers who don't act shocked or appalled when a Christian turns out to be a fully human sinner, but who, instead, simply roll up their sleeves and dive in, doing what healthy families do in times of crisis.
As perhaps most of you will know, I fell off the proverbial wall due to my relationship with Don, my current husband, while I was still married to my first husband. Both of us were in places of pain and vulnerability that only Christ knows about-but we were both married, and there was no excuse for violating our vows. The affair was wrong, wrong, wrong, and I won't try to offer up reasons or excuses. Sin is sin, period.
I was trying to be "Miz Perfect Little Thang" before that Big Ugly Fall, so the experience was accompanied by enormous public shame and a singing ministry/career that went down the tubes for nearly a decade. By God's grace, a family who tended to my wounds, and the King's finest men and women bringing me spiritual, emotional, and physical help, love, healing, and accountability-I was put back together again. Though I'd do anything to erase the sin that led to the fall and the hurt left in its wake, I have to be honest with you: I like the Sandi that's finally landed on this side of the wall, in her Father's arms, better than the old Sandi.
This Sandi has been broken, but she's more compassionate to others who struggle in a wide variety of ways. Whether you are wrestling with deep woundedness from childhood, or one of the Top Ten Bad Sins that have huge consequences, or a marriage that just doesn't seem to work right, or the daily effort to have more patience with a two-year-old who's just smeared peanut butter on your last nerve-I'm not writing with stones of judgment in my pocket. I come with a cool cloth, a glass of juice, and a boatload of compassion.
Interviewers sometimes ask me what I want to do with my life now that I'm restored, healed, and happy. I'll tell you plainly: I want to be an encourager-through my songs, my words, and my life-to others who are faltering, stumbling, or have already fallen. I want to be the friend who draws closer rather than recoils when someone confesses their personal struggles. I want to embrace the sister who is facedown in the muck of her life and remind her she is as loved by God right now as she ever will be or ever has been.
I know, really know, that given the right emotional wiring, a painful background, temptations galore, and past traumas plus a severely fallen nature, I am capable of any and all weaknesses, mistakes, and sins. In fact, when I am most aware of the bad choices I am capable of making, I am most aware of God's goodness. When I was in the New Life Treatment Center (more on that later), I met a lot of people struggling with different issues. One of the biggies was alcoholism. They used to say, "We are only as strong as our ability to resist the next drink." I realized that the concepts from AA and other 12-step programs are broadly applicable to any struggle with sin or temptation. We all carry within us the capability of making poor choices, and we are only as "well" as our ability to make the next right choice.
Henri Nouwen once wrote about this blessing of brokenness. He pointed out that at the last supper with his disciples, Jesus took the bread, broke it, blessed it, and then gave it. So, too, he implies, God does with our lives. Jesus takes us and sometimes must break us (usually to expose the yucky stuff inside that needs a good cleansing); then he blesses us after our brokenness and gives us away to a hurting world that needs more empathetic and compassionate "wounded healers" than it does airbrushed religious figures. James says, "We all stumble in many ways" (James 3:2).
How do you stumble? Where do you feel you simply can't get your act together? Where do you constantly feel you fall short? Where do you feel "less than worthy" to be called "God's beloved"? During a brainstorming session for this book, I was chatting with a couple of gals who've experienced their own particular brushes with the cement floor of life. We were each in various places of healing, though I'd had the most years of recovery under my belt. I'd just spoken and sung at the Women of Faith conference in Minnesota, and we were enjoying a bit of downtime in a hotel room on a sunny Saturday morning.
One of the women kicked off her shoes, took a sip of her coffee, leaned back on a propped-up pillow, sighed sadly, and confessed, "I sometimes feel like I'll always go around with a scarlet A on my chest."
I nodded, as I, too, know the heavy burden of feeling eternally labeled as "That Famous Christian Singer Who Sinned Big-Time."
Then she continued, "Yesterday as I was trying to take a nap, I was so tired, but sleep wouldn't come. Then this clear mental image floated into my mind, and I can't help but wonder if it was God's message of encouragement-not only to us, but to all women who feel unworthy to hold their heads up as God's daughters. In my mind I saw every one of the thousands of women at the convention center this weekend wearing a scarlet letter A on her chest. Sometimes the A stood for adultery but other times it stood for abortion or anger or addiction. Some stood for abuse victim, some were branded with anorexia or appetite, and some wore the label of abandoned. I realized it isn't just the big public failures that weigh us down as women. We're all sporting some sort of invisible label that feels heavy on our hearts."
"Isn't that interesting?" I commented, curious.
"Yes, well, it gets even more interesting. As I got a closer look, I could see that the A on every woman's chest actually stood for atoned-which means paid for in full-and that the letter was scarlet because it was written in Christ's blood."
At this point, I threw up my hands and said, "That is amazing! What a beautiful picture of grace. If we could only see what God sees, we'd hold our heads up and be free!"
Later I shared this image with my wild and wonderful partner in crime ... er ... I mean ministry, Patsy Clairmont. (If you've not seen Patsy on stage with me in her black "Blues Brothers" shades, belting out "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," you've simply missed one of life's most exuberant summits.) Funny as Patsy is, she also has a deep contemplative side that I've come to cherish. She told me later that week, "I couldn't get that image of the letter A out of my mind." I began to feel more and more that this picture was indeed a little heaven-sent message for us.
In Hawthorne's original story of The Scarlet Letter, readers get a glimpse at the human struggle behind the public sinner/adulteress. The beloved behind the label. The struggle before the sin. In other words, we get a sneak peek at what God sees-the whole picture. For every headline you read about someone; for every person who signs in at a psychiatric ward; for every recovering addict who has introduced herself or himself at a meeting with the words "My name is ____ and I'm a ____;" for every average person who has said, "I just blew it royally with my kids, my husband, my friend, my diet;" there's a story that started from birth and led to the chapter she or he is currently surviving. Perhaps the good news of the gospel is this: "Your story isn't finished yet. With God's grace, my dear child, the best is yet to come."
As long as I'm confessing, I'll let you in on something else: For much of my life, I had a real problem with Matthew 5:48, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." If this is what it means to be a Christian, honestly, it pretty much disqualifies me and everyone else. Then one day I read an essay by Stephen Arterburn in the Spiritual Renewal Bible. He explained that the word "perfect" is teleios in the original language and that it has several meanings. I perked up right away. One definition is "completion," and another is "the appropriate stage at the appropriate time." For instance, a tree that has no leaves in winter is perfect. It is at the appropriate stage for the appropriate time. Ah, ha! I thought. Then we really do have the perfect family. Considering all that has happened in the past, we are exactly where we should be at this time of our lives. We're not without fault, mind you, but that isn't what perfect means. We are in process. We are growing, blending, learning, sometimes struggling, but always loving each other.
Can we talk? (We've known each other for a few pages now, after all.) Have you ever had the following thought about someone who seemed so together, so perfect, so untarnished? What she needs is a good crisis-maybe a difficult toddler or an out-of-control teenager or a financial dilemma-something that helps her understand my less-than-perfect life. If she could only admit to a struggle, I might actually enjoy being around her! That's because going through heartache or failure refines and redefines our image of self, of others, and of Jesus in a profound way and it usually has a lovely softening effect on our personalities. Especially if we allow ourselves to fall forward instead of slide backwards.
And falling forward (drum roll please) is the central theme of this book and one of my favorite new songs. What does it mean to fall forward, anyway? I'm so glad you asked.
Excerpted from falling forward ... into His arms of grace by Sandi Patty Copyright © 2007 by Sandi Patty. Excerpted by permission.
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