Church Wounds

And one shall say unto Him, “What are these wounds in thine hands?” Then He shall answer, “Those with which I was wounded in the house of My friends,” (Zechariah 13:6, KJV, emphasis mine).

A few years ago I met Sandy and Danny, a Ukrainian couple.  I met Danny while visiting their small town near Milan with my friend, Angela.  Danny is a very important newspaper publisher for his community of Ukrainian ex-pats living in Italy.  His newspaper publishes twice a week, and it is no exaggeration to say that many in the Ukrainian community of Italy plan their week around its publication.  He showed Angela and me around the newspaper office, where we prayed for him, his newspaper, and his readers.  Then he smiled as he practically shouted at us: “You must come home with me and meet my wife.”  Of course we agreed.

When we arrived, we found a small, but beautiful home, tastefully furnished.  Danny’s two sullen pre-teen children barely said hello to us before retreating to their rooms.  Then a prostitute entered the room, smiling and greeting us.  No, wait!  That was Sandy, Danny’s wife, and she looked as much like a prostitute as anyone I have ever seen.  No, that’s not quite accurate.  Sandy looked like a caricature of a prostitute, from her stiletto heels to the exaggerated big hair and everything in between: skin tight dress in hot pink that barely covered her bottom and only half covered her breasts, which were aggressively thrust up and almost out of the top of the dress by a push-up bra.  She wore clownishly long false eyelashes and hot pink lipstick that was painted beyond the natural borders of her lips, dragon lady hot pink fingernails, and lots and lots of blingy jewelry that jangled and dangled and spangled all over her body from every part of her that jewelry could be put: toes, ankles, wrists, upper arms, neck, and ears.  As quickly as I could, I shut my mouth and smiled a greeting as she shook my hand.  Although she hid it well, I could see that Angela was as shocked by Sandy’s appearance as I was.

Sandy ran back to the kitchen and brought out a tray of coffee and cookies.  When she bent to place the tray on the low coffee table, I saw Angela avert her eyes from the ample bosom threatening to break free right under her nose.  Over coffee, Sandy skipped the small talk and went straight to talking about their troubled marriage.

Sandy’s father had been a pastor in Ukraine during the reign of Communism, and so had Danny’s, so they had both been raised in Christian homes.  However, from what Sandy told us, it sounded like both of their fathers were very stern and legalistic.  When Sandy and Danny had married, they were glad to be free from their oppressive home environments, and they looked for a place that was as unlike home as possible: Italy.  Danny had quickly galvanized the Ukrainian ex-pat community by founding his newspaper.  In the process, he had made a very nice living for himself, and Sandy was free to raise the children, keep house, and cook meals.

I am making it sound like Sandy gave us a their story in a logical fashion.  She didn’t.  I have filled you in so that you can make sense of it all because what Sandy actually said as she sipped her coffee was: “Thank God you’re here!  He (pointing at Danny) spends all his time at work or in his office next door.  The kids and I are not allowed to bother him when he’s in there.  Tell him!” she shrieked, “Tell him that’s not right!  Tell him this isn’t a marriage!”

Danny sat motionless and emotionless as a statue through this, and when it was over, he calmly stated: “I make a nice living for you and the kids.  You lack for nothing.”

This set Sandy off into another tirade, screaming pretty much the same thing, only louder.

Angela has had some actual experience in mediating conflicts, so she suggested that we keep a civil tone and each would get a chance to tell their side, “But first,” she said, “I want you to tell us something that you admire about each other.”  They both looked like children that had been scolded.  Finally Danny said: “She’s a really good mother and a great cook.”  Sandy folded her arms and said, “How would you know?  You’re barely even here.”  Angela silenced her, gently saying: “Just accept the compliment and tell us what you admire about Danny.”

Sandy took a long moment to reflect, finally conceding: “Danny is a great dad—when he’s not hiding out from us.”

Angela asked Danny for some background, and that’s when we learned about their strict, religious fathers, and their choice to move to Italy.  Danny admitted that he works long hours, and when he’s in his home office he needs to be left alone to concentrate because he is writing a book.  Of course on this point I perked up, being a writer, too.  I asked: “Tell us about your books.”  He said that he writes books about the clash of cultures and living in Italy and so forth—non-fiction, in other words.  He finished by proudly stating: “I wrote five books this year.”

Suddenly I could see Sandy’s point very clearly.  I write one or two books a year, at most.  But I don’t have a full-time job like Danny does, getting out a newspaper.  Five books in one year (and it was only September) is excessive.  Or obsessive.  No, this is escapism.  Sandy has quite a sharp tongue, and she goes from zero to scream in six seconds.

While I was processing this, Angela did something I’ve never seen anyone else do: she commandeered the rocking chair, which Sandy had been sitting in, and invited Sandy to sit on her lap.  Although Sandy towered over Angela, she kicked off her shoes and curled up in Angela’s lap, laying her head on Angela’s shoulder.  Angela rocked, hugging, stroking, and whispering into Sandy’s ear.

As they rocked, I moved closer to Danny.  I kept my voice deliberately soft and calm—for both their sakes.  I said: “Danny, I’m a writer, too.  I understand the thing that makes you feel like you’ve got to write.  And this is not a bad thing.  But you could afford to spend a little less time writing and a little more time with your family.  Your kids will only be in your house for a few more years, and then they’re gone.  If you don’t build a relationship with them now, it will probably never happen.”  He agreed.  I took a deep breath before continuing, and said softly, so that only Danny could hear me:  “Look at Sandy.  She is starved for your attention.  That dress, that makeup, all of it is begging you to love her.”

Danny very quickly said: “I do love her!”  Loudly enough for Sandy to hear.  When she started to react, Angela tightened her hold until Sandy relaxed again.  All the while she whispered soothingly and reassuringly into Sandy’s ear.

Danny dropped his gaze.  Very softly he said, “I would love to spend more time with them.”  I said, “Good.  Then do it.  It’s going to be hard at first, but stick with it.”

I wish I could say that things got better for Sandy and Danny.  But less than a year after our visit they separated and Sandy filed for divorce.  In truth, I think their old patterns were just too hard for them to shake off: Sandy screaming and Danny hiding out in his books, which set Sandy off screaming again, which sent Danny hiding out, round and round in a toxic cycle that they just couldn’t escape.

I went to visit Sandy again yesterday.  She had invited me over for lunch.  Sandy had no makeup on and was dressed like a normal person.  She’s actually got a lot of natural beauty, and when I told her that, she smiled shyly.  She told me that she has stopped going to church altogether.  The Ukrainian church, in sadly typical legalism, has shunned her for filing for divorce, and she’s not comfortable in Italian or English.  “I don’t have a problem with God,” she assured me, “but some of His people can be pretty mean.”  She told me that Danny actually spends more time with the kids now that he’s out of the house than he ever did when he still lived with them, asserting: “He really is a great dad!  We get along much better now that I no longer expect him to behave like a husband.”  I asked where the kids were, and she said that they were spending the day with their father.  I was pleased to know that Danny was following through on that.  Perhaps he had listened to my words after all.

Sandy had prepared a lovely gazpacho soup with pasta salad and watermelon for dessert.  We got to know each other better over our cool lunch.  With the pain of a failing marriage removed, Sandy is a very sweet and charming person.  I could hardly believe that this was the same painted, screaming woman I had met a few years ago.  She told me that she spends much more time with God now than she did when she was going to church because she walks out her day in the awareness of His presence.  She reads the Bible at least three times a day because she finds pleasure and comfort in it.  It seems that with the legalistic imperative to go to church removed, Sandy has found real moment-to-moment communion with God.

The one sad note is that Sandy is now shunned and avoided by the whole Ukrainian community here in Italy.  Her family at home in Odessa has also abandoned her.  “I would love to find a husband who would love me and care for me and the kids, but I don’t waste my time looking for him.  If God wills it, He will bring him to me.  For now I am perfectly content to pass my days with Jesus.”  And I realized that it’s true that God uses the wilderness experience in each of our lives to bring us closer to Him.  Still, it’s important that we have some kind of fellowship with other believers, so I suggested that we make it a regular thing to meet together.  Sandy’s face brightened, “Oh yes, let’s do that!”

Then we prayed together and I picked up my bag to go.  At the door I turned and asked her: “By the way, what was Angela whispering to you?”  Sandy smiled, sheepishly, “She just rocked me, whispering: ‘My baby girl.  My sweet baby girl.’  When I have trouble sleeping at night, I remember her words and gently rock myself to sleep.”  Angela had whispered God’s words to Sandy—words she had never heard from her parents or Danny.  Love does indeed cover a multitude of sins[1].  God is good!

[1] 1 Peter 4:8.

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