In March 2013, the Arrow Program, which I have described in earlier posts, was reaching its end. One unique feature of our final residential was that spouses were invited to join for the final couple days of learning and celebration. Our youngest daughter was still nursing at the time, but we succeeded in making arrangements for she and my wife, Shannon to join me on the Canadian West Coast.
Today’s post involves much of Shannon’s story, as seen through my eyes. If anything here fascinates you, you should follow up with her. We have discussed these events together over several years and have told these stories together several times to a smattering of close friends. In the name of marital health, you can be sure she will proofread this post before it goes live! 🙂
The blunt truth is that my final Arrow residential, intended to be a magical finale to a two-year journey, wasn’t at all magical, at least not in the ways we might have expected. For starters, Shannon was in a pretty unhealthy spot at the time, weary in her spirit and beaten down in her heart and exhausted in her body, and feeling quite alone in all of those places. I was aware of this general reality, but frightfully unaware of its extent. Naturally woven into this was the fact that we were in a stretch of poor connection with one another. And once again, I was aware of this general reality but frightfully unaware of its extent. (If other marriages out there have ever had such recurring themes, I’d love to read about it in a blog post sometime. 😉 )
Looking back, some of the factors that contributed to Shannon’s sense of burden were circumstantial: She was feeling the pressure of being a relatively new preacher’s wife, she was raising three children under the age of 5, all while working a 24-7-ish job as a mental health home operator. (If you’re not familiar with our lives, this involved 4 other adults living in our space, needing help to function in healthy ways. All were diagnosed with various levels of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.) That job blessed our family in some very tangible ways, but I think we are both still discovering some of the intangible ways in which it exacted its toll on Shannon.
Back on the West Coast, Shannon arrived with a load of other spouses, though she was the only one carting a baby along. From the get-go, we recognized that this would compromise her level of participation, but we trusted that something would be better than nothing. As we visited in bed that first night, I recounted to Shannon stories about my classmates and facilitators. Some of these were simply to help her match descriptions she’d previously heard with faces she was now seeing. But some of it was deeper.
This group had done some gut-level sharing with one another, and on that particular evening, I was recalling a number of dramatic stories that I’d heard from this collection of special friends. These were testimonies of shocking answers to prayer, vivid encounters with God, equally vivid encounters with evil, and powerful displays of obedience and sacrifice to follow Jesus. Our conversation wound down, and I rolled over to sleep. Shannon did no such thing. (Is there a married couple out there that might wish to tackle this trend in their blog post? 🙂 )
But Shannon wasn’t just struggling to get comfortable on a new mattress. The secondhand stories that I had shared with her had stirred something. (There is an unusual power wrapped into testimony, but that’s another topic.) These tales of God’s closeness had pressed directly on the dryness in the despair that she felt. And she proceeded to pray a most desperate prayer, pleading with God that if He really responded to people, she needed Him to respond to her in a bad way. And somewhere after “amen”, she fell asleep too.
The next day centred on some teaching times specifically designed for couples in ministry. Our youngest child nominated herself for “least favourite” by striking naps from her itinerary and forcing Shannon to miss much of this opportunity. Baby played and mother stewed several doors down the hallway from where I sat with the rest of the adults. Shannon had left the door open so that she might hear at least the murmurs from the classroom. There was a knock on her open door. One of my facilitators was Joanne, a high-ranking leader in the Salvation Army. Joanne and I had almost no interaction with one another during those two years, as she simply wasn’t in my closest circle of leaders. But on that day, she stepped into our lives briefly yet forcefully. She asked Shannon if she could come in. Then she sat with my wife and my daughter and gently asked if she might pray with Shannon. Shannon accepted. Then Joanne started a sentence that neither of us had ever personally heard before: “I think I have a word for you.”
And then Joanne, a complete stranger to Shannon, went on to describe, with beyond-dismissible accuracy, the place in which Shannon found herself. A cynic might argue that Joanne was a wise woman who could read body posture and facial expression. That might be true, but that cynic would be easy to dismiss. There was much more going on in those moments. That encounter, the first of its kind that either of us had ever experienced, breathed life into Shannon. I’m not talking about miraculous, now-I-can-take-on-the-world vigour. I’m talking about just-enough-oxygen-to-make-it-to-the-next-corner life. In that saving, Shannon was shattered. Could it be real that in her moment of need when it felt as though nobody saw her, that a stranger was sent to confirm a loving message from the Father, “Oh, I see you, My dear daughter. I hear you, and I wish you to know that I am for you and near you.”
One of the amazing things about this event is how unamazing the follow-up was. Nothing in our lives changed. Circumstances stayed exactly the same. An identical list of stresses existed the day after as had existed the day before. Shannon doesn’t even look back on the following weeks and perceive that she even functioned with any noticeable increase in vibrancy or hopefulness. As I said, it was a breath when she was almost dead, a wisp to keep her afloat.
But another breath was coming.
At that final Arrow Residential, one of the special guests was Jason Hildebrand, a professional actor from Toronto. Jason and his family have gone on to become very special friends to us, but my initial introduction to him might not have hinted at that. Jason’s most obvious role at our Residential was to perform various productions that he had created through the years. These included scenes from the “Life of David” and a much-loved piece titled “The Prodigal Trilogy”, based on the parable already alluded to in THIS POST. But perhaps what will stick with me for longer was a prayer exercise in which Jason led a number of our class members. Full disclaimer: Some of my classmates recount this experience as one of frustration or worse. I confess to being somewhat bipolar myself in this regard: I was unnerved enough to feel myself stepping backward from Jason, yet fascinated enough to set up a private meeting with him afterward. In short, what I witnessed Jason facilitate with people in one-on-one interactions (observed one-on-one interactions, something of an oxymoron, I realize) were times of listening prayer merged with imagination, mixed with Scripture, mashed with role-playing, matched with counselling, mingled with spiritual direction. Surely a poor illustration, I can’t help but recall that I felt a touch like Steve Carell’s character in the awful movie “Dinner for Schmucks”. In one of that flick’s most usable lines, he is spying through a window at some bizarre scene and then speaks into his phone nervously, “I’m having trouble describing what I’m looking at.” (Jason, you know we love you and your family a great deal, but that is about where I found myself on the day we met! You already know this story; just making sure we’re good!)
As mentioned earlier, I went on to set up a truly one-on-one time of prayer with Jason. I confess that exercises like this are very difficult for me. I have trouble “letting myself go”. My emotions are typically reined in by logic, and my imagination struggles to break free of my analysis. Yet, even with those deep-seated tendencies, the experience still delivered me to an epiphany of sorts. But that’s not for this post.
In the days following that final Residential, I was in touch with Jason about the possibility of him being a guest in our church someday. As it turned out, he was coming our direction in the very near future. He had enough flexibility to linger for a week and tag on additional performances. There was a very obvious satisfaction in this arrangement: My church was about to be blessed by a powerful piece of drama. A less obvious anticipation: Jason would be in our city for several days. Here was a fellow who appeared to be functioning in his spiritual life in ways completely foreign to ours. Couple that with our recent list of “God is nearer than you think” experiences, and we noted here a unique opportunity to learn. So we formed a plot: We would invite him over for supper. After 60 seconds of chit chat, we would pump him with every question we could come up with and glean anything of value that we could find! And the unsuspecting fellow, he accepted the invite. 🙂
In an effort to maximize the evening’s value, we invited a couple friends who we discerned might also enjoy this conversation. In an effort to limit people’s questions about our curious curiosity, we only invited that couple. 🙂 Once the food was served, I recounted my introduction to Jason, much as I have done above. He was happy to entertain questions and share some of his own journey. As our children’s bedtimes neared, Shannon headed upstairs to make that happen. Jason proceeded to engage in prayer with both of our friends individually. I don’t think it’s any stretch to say that they were deeply impacted, both in their lives and their marriage.
It likely only happens in our household, but on that evening a phenomenon revealed itself: When one REALLY wants children to go to sleep as quickly as possible, every disruption imaginable (and several entirely new ones) all converge at once. As the chaos settled, Shannon descended to the main floor. In her loaded words, “I was just mad.” She had eyed this evening for weeks in advance, hopeful to discover more of the breathing space that she still so badly needed. And here we were, at the end of the evening. Prayers had been prayed, folks had been blessed, and all that awaited her were farewells and dirty dishes. She willed herself to pray a prayer of gratitude for our friends and the strength which they had received that evening. “Who knows? I prayed that this evening would be one of significance, and it has been significant for them. Maybe that was the point of the whole gathering, I will try to be ok with that” she thought. And if so, then she was grateful on their behalf. But she could not simply swallow her sense of disappointment of missing out. Again. So we chatted a bit about children and bedtimes and frustrations, and Jason invited Shannon to pray with him also, despite the fact that it was already getting late. If he had been there, I’m not entirely sure how Steve Carell would have described what happened next.
But I don’t mean it was strange. It involved all of those ingredients I mentioned earlier, combined into a time of Shannon prayerfully directing her heart toward Jesus, to consider his feelings toward her and his plans for her. To the physical eye, it looked like two people on the floor, having quiet conversation with their eyes closed, one of them making occasional movements with her hands or arms. But physical eyes would have been insufficient that evening. After 90 minutes of prayer and Scripture and conversation, my wife arose as a new woman, with a brand new heart and a brand new identity.
I’m not given to hyperbole, so you will just have to deal with that sentence as it stands.
On May 16, 2013, Shannon went to bed freed from burdens and weights and fears and insecurities and hurts that she had carried for so long that she couldn’t remember where she picked most of them up. And in a matter of 90 minutes, praying with a Christian brother and placing herself before Jesus, she reached a point of deliverance that I would challenge any counsellor over many years to have reached. That’s no slight against counsellors; just a simple declaration that there is one Counsellor who can get things done in power!
Let me close with news that will shock you.
People are stupid. At least the one I know best is.
Between March 2012 and May 2013, I had instances where I actually imagined that perhaps these off-the-charts experiences were being granted to me because I was oh-so-special. “Wow, God must really have great plans for me, that He’s giving such gifts. Thanks for loving me so much.” But on the heels of hosting Jason for an evening and witnessing my wife’s rebirth from that day forward, I began to get a new thought: “Oh! God didn’t do those things because He thought I was special. He did those things when He did them because He knew I was slow. Because now my wife is out of the gates, and I’m going to need every inch of that head-start in order to keep up!”