Who do you trust to keep your precious child?
That was my dilemma upon finding out I was pregnant with our first baby after six years of marriage to my high school sweetheart. Everyone in the tiny, one-street-light town of Corrigan, Texas had one and only one suggestion: Shirley C. Talk around town was she and her husband had lost a daughter, Cindy, in a tragic accident, but they had forgiven the driver and decided to have another child, a girl they named Hope.
Well-known for her calm and peaceful spirit, Shirley baby-sat one little girl, Lindsay, in her home, while Hope and her older brother, Paul, were at school and her husband, Billy Mac was at work. Maybe, just maybe, she would be willing to sit for another little girl, my Sarah.
Agreeing to meet with me, Shirley welcomed me into her home and offered a cold glass of the best sweet tea in the south. As little Lindsay whizzed around the house in her walker, Shirley spoke of Cindy as though she were still alive, giving a cute account of how she loved to hide behind the curtains when she was a toddler.
How could she speak so freely about her, when it would bring up memories of the accident? Was it possible to remember the good times without being overwhelmed by the negative? I had learned to minimize suffering by avoiding topics I would associate with pain.
Though Shirley felt she could not adequately supervise two girls who could not walk yet, I did leave with something that would haunt me for some time to come. She had one thing I wanted more than anything else, and that was peace.
Time went by and finally Shirley felt she could handle both Lindsay and my daughter. If I was unable stay at home with her myself, Sarah had the best care in the world.
Before long, it was Sarah racing around her house in a walker and eating all the fresh vegetables from her husband’s garden. I was gaining wisdom from the casual conversations I had with Shirley when I picked Sarah up each day.
Once I had our son, Matt, only fourteen months after Sarah was born, I chose to be a stay-at-home mother, inspired by Shirley. Working at my former job a few days each month, I still needed her to take care of my children occasionally.
She always gave me more than a safe place for my children; Shirley and her husband gave us unconditional love.
Following the warning of our pediatrician that church nurseries were the worst place for children, we chose not to go to church during those infant and toddler years. Shirley and Billy Mac were the teachers for the young married couple’s class and always made it a point to invite us to the Sunday school class fish fries or cookouts they hosted at their house. We felt no guilt or condemnation, just love and an open door.
Finally, we did attend a fish fry and found it was wonderful to have fellowship with other couples and their children. It was, nevertheless, a while before we began attending church, but eventually we gave in to the loving wooing of the Holy Spirit through this loving couple.
I had everything I had ever wanted: a wonderful husband, two beautiful children, a lovely home, and now back in church. What more could I ask for?
Well, it may sound crazy, but that’s when things got rough. Going to church wasn’t enough, so I tried a women’s retreat.
One of the speakers was Sandra Felton, founder of Messies Anonymous. At the end of her presentation, she performed a sign-language interpretation to the Twila Paris song, “Every Heart That Is Breaking Tonight.” I can remember, just like it was yesterday, the movement she used for the word “breaking,” then hearing the words “…and oh, how He longs to hold in His arms every heart that is breaking tonight.”
Could this really be true? Isn’t God too busy to care about my little problems? Don’t I have to wait until I have been in church a bit longer to expect anything from God?
Upon returning to church a couple of weeks later, I realized my Bible was missing from its spot on the shelf in our hall closet. Too embarrassed to ask if it had been turned in at church, since I didn’t discover it was missing for that long, I realized it was about time to read the Bible and see what God had to say to me.
Choosing the New King James Version of the Bible, just because it was the version of Sarah’s Precious Moments Bible, I purchased the cheapest one I could find at Kmart. Deep down, I knew God’s word had the answers I was seeking.
Starting with the red letters, I began to read every word Jesus said, but still no peace…
Like a volcano dormant for decades, the pressure within me began to spew when I faced situations I could not control.
One such episode came one night about 3 a.m. My husband and I both had a child monitor on each of our nightstands, since our bedroom was upstairs and the kids’ rooms were downstairs. Sarah woke up, and I went down to check on her. She was a four-year-old out of control, refusing to settle back down for the night. I snapped, giving her a tongue lashing and daring her to get back up or even make another peep.
Wearily returning upstairs to bed, I was confronted by my loving husband who was furious about what he overheard me say on the monitor. His words changed the course of my make-believe world, “I don’t know what is wrong with you, but whatever it is, fix it. You will not talk to our daughter like that.”
What was wrong with me? Why was I so angry?
You can only stuff down feelings for so long.
It seemed that every episode of the latest craze in programming, “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” was about women dealing with childhood sexual abuse. All those women had it so much worse than me, so how could THAT be my problem?
It had been back when I was a young girl. My mother had believed me and stopped all unsupervised visitation with my father as soon as I told her what had happened, which was about five years after it began. Could this be what needed to come to the surface almost seventeen years later?
Even my husband didn’t know about it. After telling him, I spoke with my pastor about my anger and its relationship to my childhood sexual abuse. He actually had the nerve to tell me that my past hurts, no matter how deeply I was wounded, were no excuse for my angry outbursts. That made me even angrier.
Looking for peace at church wasn’t working out at all.
By that time, Shirley had become an assistant librarian at our local public library. Desperate to find answers that would excuse me from being accountable for my own actions, I found an audio cassette (okay, it was the 1980’s) on display behind the checkout desk called Courage to Heal for victims of childhood sexual abuse.
If I checked it out, Shirley might figure out my secret, but after several days, I got brave enough to ask for it. She never acted as though she wondered why I wanted to listen to it. The answers I was looking for were not there, though it led me to understand I could only heal if I pushed past the shame and told my secret to others.
When you live with minimizing your traumatic experiences to survive, there is such relief when you tell your story and someone validates your pain.
One day, the Lord arranged it so we could talk privately at her house. It was always so calm and peaceful there, so I felt safe to share my secret. Shirley quietly listened, hugged me, and cried with me, telling me that she was so sorry for my pain. Then she did the strangest thing: she shared a Bible passage with me that her pastor had given her after Cindy was killed. Shirley said, “I don’t know if this has anything to do with what happened to you, but it sure helped me at my time of great loss.”
The verses were from 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” NKJV.
God of all comfort…now that’s what I needed!
Those red letters in my Bible – they had made me angry, too. How could the God of all comfort ask me to forgive when I had been hurt so deeply? Didn’t He understand how I had been robbed of an innocent childhood? Didn’t He see all the good things I had done?
I had survived and thrived by my own sheer determination. Wasn’t that enough? How cruel could this God of all comfort be?
No longer were my emotions pinned up inside, I wrote about them.
Even though I had worked so hard to pretend the abuse wasn’t happening, why didn’t my mother or one of my public school or Sunday school teachers notice something was wrong with me? How could the God of all comfort let a little girl be hurt by someone she loved and was supposed to protect her?
I knew the verses were true, but I was unable to pray without my mind wandering. Reading somewhere that when you have trouble praying, you may be angry with God, I realized where my anger was rooted.
Wow! Was I really angry with God? Where was He when I was being abused? Why did He make such unreasonable demands on me?
Just after Easter 1990, I had my own resurrection event.
Carol Kuykendall wrote about forgiveness in her Good Friday devotion in Daily Guideposts, which told a mother’s story similar to the life of my friend, Shirley, where she forgave a drunk driver who killed her only child. Her comments about forgiveness were the key to unlocking my anger, “Forgiving is not an instinctive reaction but a purposeful choice we make to reach above our feelings of hate or blameful resentment and allow God’s forgiving love to flow through us.”
God’s forgiving love would flow through me if I would just make the choice to forgive, even if I didn’t feel like forgiving. I wrote out a prayer a few days later, confessing my sin of living life without Him, yet blaming Him for my misery and lack of peace.
That was the day my burden was rolled away, just as Christian experienced in Pilgrim’s Progress. Praise God, I could truly allow the God of all comfort to come and do His work, for I was totally exhausted from my futile attempt to heal myself.
Now, for the rest of the story…my children and husband loved me through a very tumultuous time, but received a mother and wife who was born again as a result of the touch of Jesus. Growing in the knowledge of God’s word through reading it, as one who was starving to death would devour any morsel of food, I began to truly live.
My husband and I began soaking up everything Billy Mac taught in Sunday school class. Eventually, the last part of the Bible passage Shirley had shared with me that day became true for me, as God sent me troubled teenagers to tell about the God of all comfort.
God even allowed me to teach her daughter, Hope, in a teenage girls’ class at church. Talk about full circle!
My prayer is that this story might touch some woman like Shirley’s story touched me. May the God of all comfort be invited by you to comfort you in all your tribulations today.
By Cheryl Neiswender