Through Pain and Grace Toward Redemption
It's going to take me a few weeks to tell this story. Partly because it's a long story. But also because it just happened and I'm still trying to figure out what it all means and what I learned.
If I was talking to you instead of writing, I’d probably begin this story with my standard disclaimer, which sounds something like this:
I know a lot of people have it harder than I do, so I’m not saying this is the worst thing that’s ever happened, but…
Even if I tell myself I'm not going to say that, I often do anyway. I open my mouth to speak and a cloud of shame descends on me. I start thinking about all the people who have it worse than I do. And then it seems like Jesus is rolling his eyes while I talk. Somehow I feel that if I can just squeak out a small apology, I'll have somehow earned the right to speak about my own pain.
I'm not sure why I do that, but I suspect it may be a sign that I've never fully accepted the grace that I preached all those years when I was a pastor. I suspect that down inside I think it's fine for other people to fall apart but not me and not my family. That's a pretty sad and arrogant way to think and be, but I might as well admit the truth of it. Because this story is about failure and shame and grace and redemption. And you can't really talk about those things unless you begin by laying your cards on the table.
I used to have this image of my family that just wasn't tied to reality. I thought we had it all put together very nicely. We communicated well, loved each other, and generally did things the right way. But cracks had been appearing in that image for some time. My depression a few years back. My daughter Shelby’s own bouts with depression and her struggles with school and friends. But still, no big issues. On the whole I thought we were doing pretty well.
Then I got a call from my wife on the first Monday night in April. I was with some friends of mine who gather once a month for beer, pizza, and long conversations.
“You need to come home right away. I think Shelby might be pregnant.”
It felt like a quart of acid dropped into my stomach. My face flushed and my skin prickled. I managed to whisper an excuse and rush out the door. My gut burned with anxiety on the drive home. My seventeen-year-old daughter, still in high school, might be pregnant. I know many in our culture have moved away from the simple idea of waiting until you are married, but that is a value of our family and our faith community. And it’s something we talked about with our daughters. You're not ready for sex in high school. It’s not smart. You’re not ready until you are prepared and able to deal with all the possible consequences. I knew Shelby was pushing some boundaries, but I did not know she was having sex.
I arrived home to find Shelby on the couch, hugging her knees to her chest and looking panicked. One look at Jeanene’s face showed me the depth of her fear and concern. We drove to a local drugstore, a horrible drive with the awkward silences broken only by laments and failed attempts to comfort each other. I remember how shocking it felt to stand at the counter and purchase a pregnancy test for my daughter. The bored expression on the clerk's face didn't fit either. Was this really just another transaction? Back home Jeanene disappeared into our bedroom with Shelby while I sat in the darkness, waiting.
My theology has no room for last minute bargains. Shelby exercised the wonderful and terrible gift of freedom that is the birthright of all humans. I knew that she either was or wasn’t pregnant. The biological reality of her situation was already set. But in that moment, a more primitive kind of faith came over me. I bargained with God like any desperate sinner.
“Please, don’t let this happen. Just let us off the hook this one time. I’ve been working a lot at nights, I know. And I’ve been kind of distant. It’s been a long time since Shelby and I had one of our talks. Just get us through this one thing and I’ll be a better father. I promise. Oh God, just don’t let her be pregnant."
When Jeanene came out, she didn’t have to say a thing. Her face told the whole story. Any real hope for a last minute reprieve was gone, but some riverboat gambler in my soul held out for one last desperate toss of the dice. I needed confirmation from Jeanene before this could become real.
Jeanene nodded solemnly.
A long exhale. A swallow. And then darkness. Whatever defenses I had fell apart.
Hours later I was the only one awake. Shelby was frightened and overwhelmed but unable to comprehend the fullness of what this was going to mean for her life. She managed to fall asleep. Jeanene, exhausted from crying and grief finally slept as well. I was left alone, wide awake.
On that night every dark voice from my past came to haunt me. The hopeless feelings of my depression, which tends to blow small things out of proportion anyway, were raging in the face of this actual tragedy. Anxiety entered my body like an evil spirit. I paced around our house shaking as if I had a fever. My last paycheck from Covenant Baptist Church had arrived the week before and we were already short of money. Our pitiful insurance, all we can get because of depression medication I took a few years before, would not cover any part of childbirth for Shelby. If I managed to wrestle one negative, fearful thought to the ground, ten others were waiting to take its place.
How could you not know she was sexually active? You should have been a better father, more of a guiding light. This is your fault!
Hey, you know what’s going to be fun? The first time you show up at church with Shelby visibly pregnant. Here comes our ex pastor and his pregnant daughter. You know what? Your family is a mess. What made you think you could be the shepherd of a congregation?
And how about that baby? You know Shelby won’t be able to raise it alone. Get used to these late nights, grandpa. Any idea how you're going to pay for this or for the medical care Shelby will need? Your family has no emotional or financial margins. What do you think will happen when you add a baby into the mix?
And oh, by the way, you deserve this. You asked for it. You didn’t take care of the details of your life, as usual. So open up wide, crybaby, and take your medicine.
An hour of these voices seemed like an eternity. And there were many hours that night. I never slept.
I will not say that healing began when I called Ben, because healing was still far away. I called Ben because I didn’t know what else to do. Ben, who has been in church with me for twenty years. Ben, the steady and calm presence of our faith community. Ben, who taught Shelby in Sunday school and who loves her and took her on camping trips over the years. When I called Ben he dropped everything and came. Of course he did. That’s what we do for each other in Christ. When he got to the door he held out his arms. I fell into them and cried.
I end this story in sorrow because that’s all there was at the time.
Photo by Elizabeth Weller.