I ran into my ex-fiance on Saturday morning.
It’s the first time we’ve seen each other since the week of our wedding last summer, and I was completely unprepared for it.
Just days earlier, I’d told my sister-in-law that I had a premonition I was going to see him again soon, but I was still shocked when our paths crossed so unexpectedly. My defenses were down; my emotions unchecked; my heart untucked from its pocket of safety.
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” – CS Lewis, The Four Loves
Every time I try to lock my heart away to protect it from the agonizing pain of living in the world, God lovingly pries apart my shields and rips down my fortress. He keeps my heart soft when I want to harden my heart against the perpetual onslaught of hurt.
Sometimes it feels like He keeps ripping off the scab and reopening the wound again and again. Just when I’m starting to heal, another hit comes. Another blow. Another gash. Another wound. Is this kindness? I have to believe that God is not cutting me open to damage me but rather to do heart surgery; to take away my heart of stone and give me a heart that is soft and malleable, capable of receiving love and giving love in turn.
A few weeks ago, my friend Mary asked me to attend her church’s Singles Retreat. I attend services at a different church, but Mary’s boyfriend broke up with her recently, and she needed moral support at her church’s retreat because he’d be there, too. Since God frequently redeems my own seasons of darkness by using them to comfort and work healing in others, I agreed to pay the $40 registration fee and spend my Saturday at a church camp out in the countryside.
After a few hours in the car and a quick stop for Starbucks, Mary and I arrived at the retreat center early Saturday morning. We prayed together in the car, that God would be our Guide, Comforter and Encourager that weekend. I prayed for Mary, and she prayed for me.
The Christian community is small in my city, so when Mary and I made our way to the second floor of the lodge to register, I recognized a few of the people running the registration booth. Mary and I talked and laughed with the volunteers as we got our name badges; then we turned to the door to walk toward the sanctuary for the first session. But just before my hand touched the knob, the cabin door opened, and there he stood. My ex-fiance.
I didn’t recognize him at first. Since I was eye-level with his chest, I just wondered why this talk blonde was blocking my path. Finally, I looked up and locked eyes with him. And all of the breath went out of me.
Shock. That was my primary emotion, tinged with peace. Peace that I am not married to this man. Then surprise at the peace. Why am I not upset? Then fear. What if I’m in shock, and the emotional breakdown is going to start any moment?
All of those thoughts and emotions fluttered through me in a fraction of a second. In the meantime, he said, “Hi, Rory.” Hearing his pet name for me was jarring. He’s the only one who has ever shortened my name that way, and it sounded foreign in my ears.
“Hi,” I echoed back, trying to process the situation unfolding before me. He didn’t look surprised to see me. That was all my brain could register.
He was expressionless. “I saw you walk by and came to let you know I was here so it wouldn’t be awkward.”
His statement made no sense to me. My mind was full of questions. You mean, like it’s awkward right now? What are you doing here? Why did you feel the need to come up and reveal yourself to me? Why couldn’t you have left me oblivious to your presence?
But what I said out loud was, “Okay. I didn’t know you went to First Baptist.”
“Well I do.”
“Okay.” I had nothing else to say. Shock rendered my brain useless. Fortunately, it also momentarily numbed my heart from registering any feeling.
“Well I just wanted to let you know I was here.” He looked at me expectantly then, like he had anticipated more of a reaction.
“Okay.” I felt one eyebrow involuntarily go up like it does when I’m annoyed. What do you expect me to say or do here?!
I sensed him tense just before he turned and wordlessly walked away. Watching him descend the staircase, it dawned on me that we hadn’t made any kind of physical contact. And I was glad. I would have felt violated if he’d tried to touch me. He is no longer a safe space. He has wounded me. He is not trustworthy.
Mary watched the whole thing unfold, so I said listlessly to her, eyes straight ahead, “That was my ex-fiance.”
She had nothing to offer, so we walked into the sanctuary for the first session. Of course, I couldn’t focus at all. I spent the whole time journaling my thoughts and feelings and trying not to glance at my ex, who was seated across the aisle to my right.
After the session, we were mixed into small discussion groups, but I spoke quietly to a freckled Asian girl seated on my left. We’d never met before, but I was desperate. “I need someone to pray over me. I just saw my ex-fiance for the first time since we broke up and am in shock.”
The petite girl seemed unfazed as she gestured for me to follow her. We got up from the group and silently walked out the door into the sunshine. She led me down a nature trail, and we settled onto a secluded park bench. Only then did we introduce ourselves. Her name was Grace. How fitting.
I poured my heart out to her, processing my own thoughts and feelings as I spoke. Grace listened attentively. She let me cry, comforting me with words of truth. She encouraged me, laughed with me through my tears, and took my hand in hers to pray over me. She’s twenty-four years old.
It’s moments like this that make my heart feel full. It’s moments like this that remind me what the church is supposed to look like. It’s moments like this that fill me with joy, knowing more intimately the character of the God we serve.
This is what the Body of Christ is supposed to look like. This is how we share the Good News with the world. “They will know us by our love.”
There is power in people who are seemingly strangers coming together as Brothers and Sisters in Christ, united by a bond that is greater than ourselves. There is power in reminding one another that we were created for more than our eyes can see this side of heaven. There is power in being the hands and feet of Jesus, loving the unlovely in a broken world desperately in need of Grace.