Unpoetic Justice

My life is an example to many, because you have been my strength and protection.  That is why I can never stop praising you; I declare your glory all day long.  -Psalm 71:7-8

Ever hear of a Pyrrhic victory? It  is one in which the battle was won but the casualties were so high, the victory was nearly meaningless.

“Christie, in order to finish this case all the way through to the final court date, our office needs another $7,000,” my North Carolina attorney said over the phone.  Sitting in my car in a tiny town northeast of Atlanta in the Goodwill parking lot on a sunny late morning in August, I nearly stopped breathing.  Seven… thousand dollars?  And our Georgia attorney was asking for another $2,500 as well. Due NOW.  How in the world were we going to even begin to pay for all this on a teacher’s salary and a grad student’s meager student loan refund used for living expenses?  It was clear from both attorneys that we had two weeks to ante up or they would back out.  Errrrr!  “We never wanted this fight to begin with!!!” my insides screamed.

Somehow, our final court dates were set within one day of each other.  The case in Georgia would be heard on September 26th, and the one in North Carolina would commence the following day at 9am.

My mind clicked away.  Finances?  In the hole by about 50 grand. It frosts me that we were debt free prior to these unwanted fights with our ex-spouses. Knowing we would be sleep-deprived, stressed out beyond measure, lied about in court and had very little support regarding folks to take care of our kiddos while we drove across state lines fighting for them, I leaned my head against the steering wheel. It was all I could do to not think about driving all the way up to North Carolina immediately after court in Atlanta, preparing for Round 2 of immeasurable stress and sharing air-space with three vengeful ex-spouses, one of whom had been abusive to me and my kids.  I had not seen him in over five years, yet somehow the other two exes located him from across the country and reined him into this frenzy.  He was all too willing to jump into the fray. Who goes through things like this??

If ever there was an Old Testament story being lived out in 2011, this was it.  God, and only God could deliver us out of this one.  Wow.  We were awarded custody of our sons in the end, but the costs emotionally, mentally, financially, and spiritually were debilitating.

Aside from the financial magnitude, I think the lies were the worst part to endure.  Our exes polluted our environment at nearly every turn, pulling school principals, church folks, a friend of the judge’s wife, private school teachers and parents, and even members of our own family into horrible lies about us.  It was nightmarish to watch the lies swallowed whole by people I should have been able to depend upon to sift through the mud a whole lot better than that.  The psychologist and counselors in the case were the only ones who seemed to be able to cut through the lies straight to what was actually true, to our relief and frustration.  In court, it did not matter how many ways we could substantiate what we were saying (receipts, emails, video clips on our Bloggie), we were not believed.  One of our exes fabricated an email from a school principal (we could prove it), yet wasn’t raked over the coals even a little. And guardian ad litems?  Forget it.  The name of that game is “who can put on the best show.”  Bottom line, we were in a street fight.  As a Christian, that situation doesn’t seem to fit well, especially when looking for emotional support.  No, this is a private journey, and no one wants to hear it after a while.  You go through this alone.

At times like this, there is no “why.”  The only comfort to be found is “this too shall pass.” And “just hold on.” And God’s Word.  I cannot describe the unbelievable solace I found in those verses.  They come alive when they’re all you have to depend on.  I would stake my life on these verses that all came true in our situation.  For those in the midst of this torrential storm, I have this to say: Trust Him.  Lean into what He has to say.  Trust Him when it doesn’t make sense to do so.  He is a strong refuge, and can thwart the strongest of human defenses.  You won’t understand everything that happens, but He is absolutely reliable.  You will come out of this storm.  You cannot see all the moving pieces flying at you, but He can, and He will lead you through.  And out.  Hold on.

Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces. I cried out to the LORD in my suffering, and he heard me.  He set me free from all my fears.  For the angel of the LORD guards all who fear him, and he rescues them.  Taste and see that the LORD is good.  Oh, the joys of those who trust in him!  Let the LORD’s people show him reverence, for those who honor him will have all they need. –Psalm 34:5-9

Storm on Tybee 019

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Hope Arrived Most Unexpectedly

Soooooo….I haven’t blogged in a while.

I smile now as I remember when we first moved to Savannah. I wondered then if I would ever feel right again, given the horrific litigation we’d just come out of and the constant hyper-vigilance that accompanies dealing with a couple of high-conflict ex-spouses. It’s a relief to have my sense of well-being finally restored a year later.

It’s been an odd experience for me settling in here in that normally I hit the ground running, finding a niche community in which to involve myself (church or university usually). Not this time though. I was war torn and burnt out. That was frightening because unlike stress overload, which a person can feel exponentially, burnout is not at all noticeable and is by far more damaging if not properly treated.  (Yay for counseling training, counseling classmates, and an amazing husband who prayed for me often.)

So I came to this beautiful place and was introduced to some very kind and polite strangers everywhere seemingly (neighbors, fellow beach goers, store clerks, church folks), but there was a massive disconnect for me. I felt like a stranger to myself—both wanting to connect and not ready to do so at the same time. Nothing was familiar, and I didn’t quite know where I wanted to fit in.  The only place I could find relief was when I went to Tybee Island.  The palm trees, sand, ocean, shells, and boardwalks were most gracious and patient hosts while I explored my surroundings at my own pace and attempted to reconnect my soul to life around me.

Walking on Tybee, I sensed a strong history here that I am a new part of. Tybee, like the South, seems to have its stories. I can feel them, but I don’t know what many of them are yet. Actually, I feel that way about understanding Southern culture in general, not having grown up in it (even though I’m married to a Southerner). There are still many nuances and facets of the culture that I need explained to me. Walking past the lighthouse, I have wondered when I will feel that this beautiful place is really home as opposed to a gracious and mysterious host. It’s getting there more and more.

I went to the Tybee Art & Wine Festival last year, which was a fun first step. It was an amazing privilege to learn from some great local chefs and cooking instructors. I learned more about the history, the sea-life, local food producers, and also ate some amazing food. I still have my complimentary wine glass and recipe booklet, having used both quite often. I like having tangible objects to remind me that I am healing, and that things do indeed…pass.

I joined the YMCA, and met some folks there—folks we’ve seen either while walking the kids to school or from the church we eventually joined one year later. Everyone is friendly.

Our son joined the high school football team, and formed strong friendships there. Our other son plays basketball through the YMCA. Our children have all found friends and love going to church.  They seem happy, and it’s fun being their mom (even when that isn’t immediately obvious as I’m making them do their homework and chores after school.).  I know they’re going to be okay and are recovering from custody litigation.

Church connections did not come as easily as my husband and I were settling in. This has not been an easy ordeal for us, having sustained wounds from past church experiences which felt magnified over the last 3 years of trying to find a church home.  We try not to live our lives in our rearview mirrors, but this was a scar for both of us that had yet to heal.  I both hoped and disbelieved we would be able to heal enough to where we could connect with a church body again.  Finally, we got to a point where we tenuously approached the pastor (of the church near our house) about joining.  To our relief and pleasant surprise, we were not judged by this pastor.  Rather, he saw our combined experiences and subsequent spiritual growth as assets to the church community.  That’s unusual for a pastor, in our experience.

I am also able to pick up another piece of my life that I needed to lay aside temporarily: finishing my master’s degree.  I am just one internship shy of finishing the 60 hour program in Counseling.  It’s time, and I am better.
So why am I writing this?  Hope.  Last year, I was terrified that I was losing my mind, and googling child custody litigation like crazy, hoping to read something from other folks who had endured this as well.  So often I felt caught in a weird Alice-in-Wonderland nightmare that refused to make sense.  I needed hope.  I want folks to know that the storm does pass, and healing does come.

“I waited patiently for the LORD to help me, and he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire.  He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.  He has given me a new song to sing, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see what he has done and be astounded. They will put their trust in the LORD.”
-Psalm 40:1-3

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On Blended Families and Such

 Dear God:  I am overwhelmed.  Building a blended household and a life, as wonderful as it is with an amazing person alongside me, has its difficulties.  Even though I had step-parents beginning when I was age 13, I had no idea how really complicated running a blended family household is a lot of times.  Five kids, all from other marriages than ours.

Managing visitation schedules with ex-spouses (one of them who is hostile, the other congenial for the moment) eats up a lot of time and gas expense every weekend. It also complicates activities that some of the kids want to be involved with.  And money is tight, as anyone in a large blended family is well aware.

I worry about the kids.  They’re certainly not growing up like I did.  I wasn’t shuttled back and forth between parents like they are (my dad lived far away).  I had the same chores every Saturday, we went to the same church, and all of us were involved in some sort of activity through church, school, community….we had friends.  And connections.  I guess I took those for granted to some degree.  These kids have been through the dizzying and confusing array of guardian ad litem interviews, have been told horrible things about us by their other parents, and have had to bear with us as we’ve struggled to pay attorneys we could not afford to defend us in court battles we did not want.  Saturday chores?  How can I possibly make that fair when two of the kids aren’t here three weekends a month?  Activities?  When?  And with what money?  Their friends?  They sure don’t get to see them on a Saturday or Friday night.  I wish that was different.

Thank You for bringing us to the coast where we can at least go to the beach and decompress.  I guess I worry if our storyline, our family activity, is too boring for them.  We are still thawing, still healing from all the madness and betrayal.  I can’t stop the clocks, and I can’t call “time out” here.  The kids keep growing and developing…and none of that stops or waits for my war-torn soul to see more clearly.

And so I pray.  Praying is all I know to do when I have nothing left to give, and nowhere else to turn.  I am scared.  Scared so much of what I cannot see going on with them.  I can’t look inside their heads or their hearts to see what is developing—what’s good or what needs to be dealt with and redirected.  I am scared of how the horrible custody battles may have altered the trajectory of their lives.  Will they be okay?  How do I know if I’m being too hard or not hard enough on them on a day-by-day basis?  It’s all I can do to make sure the house is cleaned up and dinner is on the table before assigning someone to do dishes (sometimes) and get the younger kids headed for bedtime.  I haven’t even checked my 2nd grader’s homework this week!  I found out Friday morning that she hadn’t done any of it for the week.  What??  Where was I??  Oh, right.  Stressing over our ability to pay bills, carefully grocery shopping, taking kids to dentist appointments, referreeing countless arguments between younger kids, doing laundry, and ….well, You know all the rest.

I feel like I’m spinning with how large of a task this is….not just managing the household, but also managing five children.  And oh yeah….I’m married too!  “Honey?  The kids ate our marriage.”

What energy is even left for attending to building our still young marriage (2 ½ years)?

And so I pray.  Thank You that no one is sick.  Thank You that no one is incarcerated or addicted to a substance or rebellious (well, for the most part anyway).  Thank You for protecting us and taking care of us.  Thank You for an amazing husband who happens to also be my best friend. Please make me a good mom.  Please make me a great wife.  Help me with not feeling overwhelmed.

I liked the visual You gave me today when we were at the beach.  My dear husband always stops me as I’m about to pick up something heavy as we’re walking either to or from the car.  “Christie?  You take the towel.  I’ll carry the bag, the mat, and the beach chairs.”  He carries the heavy stuff while I carry a towel.

And that is just what happens when we call on Jesus, isn’t it.  He takes the heavy stuff, and I carry a very light load as we walk alongside each other.  Thank You for that.

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Joy Amidst the Chaos

Divorce.  You never thought it would happen to you. Yet here you are, looking right at it, like looking down the barrel of a gun. More than an unwelcome visitor, it seems like an ever-present tormentor. You walk around in a fog of “what went wrong” for hours upon hours, coming up empty-handed on answers.  And tears spill over.

What a time we live in.  Promises are meaningless in our culture, it seems.  Everything is disposable, nothing is sacred, and life feels shattered at times like this.  “You’ll get past it,” people say, as though it’s like having a case of the measles. And they’re right of course, life does go on….but it’s never quite the same.

“If promises don’t matter, then what does matter?” You wonder. Subconsciously, you’ve learned to not completely trust again. Not fully. Not like this last time.  That comes out in statements like, “I’ll not be hurt this way again.”  But even as you utter that promise to yourself, you are haunted by the cracked reality that indeed you could be hurt that badly again someday. And further into the foxhole you dig.

It’s been 12 years since I was left trying to pick up the shattered pieces of my own marriage.  Although the sting is no longer there, I do remember how painful the loss was. There were many days I doubted I would ever feel okay again.  The worst part was not knowing if I would ever be able to trust anyone again.  And yes, 12 years later, I look back and see how divorce changed me…for better and for worse.

It’s the “better” part that I want to focus on here.  Divorce often feels like a mile-wide tornado.  Lots of pieces flying, wind swirling so fiercely you can’t even see, and you can’t find solid ground. And yet life is still going on around you “as normal.”  It’s almost insulting.  I discovered that only one thing saw me through.  That first evening I was sitting alone in a house my ex had permanently left just hours before, I made a decision.  I picked up my Bible and began to mine for something, anything I could hang onto, as I’d seen my grandparents and mother do time after time.  That Bible became my closest companion through those gut-ripping moments when I felt I couldn’t breathe.  Reading about the battles detailed in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, I saw just how raw life can be, and I felt less alone, albeit marginally.  I also saw God’s people succeed against impossible odds. Reading through Isaiah and Psalms, I got to know God’s heart, and just how much He valued me.  And I realized He was right there with me.

It was somehow comforting to know that I had found my solid ground, unshakable ground as everything else was flying away.

I have been tested through other life pressure cookers since then, but every time I go back looking for those same comforting stories and promises…I find Him to be even more of a presence than the last time.  Just like Shadrach and his gang found Jesus in the fire, He has never failed me in my own impossible circumstances. As I kept putting one foot in front of the other, day by day, it was comforting to know that my name is written on the very palm of God’s hand.  Trust Him.  You won’t be sorry. Those who look to Him for help will be radiant with joy; no shadow of shame will darken their faces. –Psalm 34:5.

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Lord, Deliver Me From Your Followers

A Brief Narrative of a Weary Soul Trying To Process Something

Sitting in a Beth Moore Bible Study this morning on the book of James in my new church, I contemplated the wrestling match between wounded soul and battered spirit.  This was a major step for me, being involved again in a church, after I’d seen so much war with other Christians.

Yes, I’ve been burned.  I’ve seen my fair share of church splits. I’ve been the pregnant freshly abandoned divorced mom enduring interesting remarks from those who’ve never tasted death of a marriage. I’ve seen “godly” souls not even bat an eyelash as they tell a bold-faced lie in front of God and everyone, to the ruin of innocent people.  I’ve also been betrayed by people in the church, people I had once considered close to me.  This has not been a one-time event either.  Something happens, people judge through their polite smiles, a relationship goes bust, sides are chosen, gossip gallops through the circles, and poof!  I find myself covered in the ashes of friendship that did not stand the test of trials.  It hurts.

I think the most challenging aspect of growing up in the Christian church is guarding against encroaching cynicism, which is really a broken form of disbelief once it’s unpacked.  I’ve seen some good people (including my father) leave the faith entirely over very real and justified hurts from the Church community.  You see, even though Jesus’ words are true, His Church often gets it wrong.  They all know they’re not supposed to judge, be critical, or gossip for instance.  Oh, but just wait until someone walks through the doors of a Southern Baptist church with tattoos and multiple sets of earrings.  And come to find out that person is divorced. People will talk.  Some will be kind.  Others will thank God they’re not like that person. And never you mind about that other person they know with a nearly identical past (divorce, etc.), but who is already well-connected in church.  The discrepancy is easily ignored.

It can be difficult to trust anyone at all in a church community or setting after even one negative experience that feels beyond one’s control to make amends. Not only do I struggle with the tortured memories of friendships now ghosted, I struggle with the memory of once liking the church culture.  I don’t like it anymore.  What was once important to me has turned into something that I want no part of.  I wonder if this is a permanent sentiment.

Enter the wrestling match.  I love Jesus, but I don’t like the church.  Dan Kimball wrote an entire book on that subject, but I think it was aimed more at how people outside the Christian faith view the church and Jesus.  Philip Yancey took the opposite tack in Soul Survivor, dealing with people inside the church who have become disillusioned with what the Church is supposed to be.  Forget about the “handing out bottled water on street corners” service projects that make out-of-touch attendees feel like they’re doing something for the world around them.  We need missionaries inside our very own churches!

For the life of me, I cannot figure out how to reconcile my wounded heart with being connected now in my present setting, especially when I really believed in the heart of a former church and was once very connected.  I lost it all, almost overnight, and it wasn’t even my fault.  I learned there is no such thing as a “safe community” in church.  Church houses both judgmental and gracious souls, side by side.  I completely get the concept that it is up to me to invite the gracious ones into my inner circle and be patient with the ones who judge.  This is not a simple task however, nor an easy one for one who has been through so much heartbreak.

I was nearly engaged to a senior pastor who ended our relationship shortly after I was laid off from my job as an accountant due to the economy.  The timing wasn’t great, but the truth was I didn’t want to be an accountant anymore.  After praying about it and weighing my options, I enrolled in a graduate counseling program.  He strongly disagreed with my decision amidst many who otherwise supported me, and to my shock, I lost that relationship, I lost my friends, and I lost my church family. In some ways, I’m still recovering from that loss of friends and church community.  I miss them, even though it’s been over two years.

More recently, I have seen people side with a false accuser against someone who is innocent, simply because the accuser happens to be adept at twisting a story completely around.  It was a sad picture, as I sat with that innocent person on one side of the church soccer field at a game while all the other “godly” congregants sat on the complete opposite side of the field gossiping and laughing.  How heartbreaking.

I have seen a preacher get up on stage and use that audience to feed his own narcissism and social agendas, but is really a fraud behind the scenes.

I have people in my own family who refuse to come to holiday functions if we are present…all over the fact that we don’t completely accept their theology, which we’ve never made an issue of and have tried to downplay. Are you kidding me?  Death of relationship by theology? Sadly, horrifically, it’s true.

Oh God, if You are love itself, then why?  Why are many of Your followers so heartless?  It’s time to ask You to do what only You can do: heal my wounds where Your Church is concerned.  I don’t know how this can happen.  But I know if I do not choose to heal, I will grow as heartless as those who’ve hurt me, only in another direction.  Wounds left unattended, ice over eventually.  Why all this infighting, all the pretense and harsh judgment from pulpit to pew?  Why so much gossip and drama that unfairly ruins people’s reputations and ends connections?  Heal my wounded soul, and help me to forgive these people.

I will not become heartless.  I can’t afford it.

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Sorry, What Was That You Said?

“I’m moving to Savannah,” my ex-husband, Greg announced two weeks ago.

“Sorry, what?”  was all that came tumbling out of my shocked face.  Ordinarily, I loathe the phone, but was grateful for it in this instance to help mask my face.

“Yep, about a mile or two from where you guys live.  Wish me luck!” he said just before hanging up, behaving as though we were the best of friends.  Far from an honest reflection of the last 6 years, but then Greg often displayed behavior that did not match the reality.

Although we have been at peace for the last six months, there was little reason to believe things would stay that way, especially in light of the impending court date redetermining child support. Past promises to remain at peace had been horribly violated, resulting in a reprisal of child custody litigation that lasted another 18 months. (Ain’t love grand.)

My husband and I moved to Savannah just seven weeks ago.  Relieved to be done with our simultaneous litigations with both ex-spouses, we chose to relocate to our beloved coast, far away from memories of former lives.  In the 9 years Greg and I have been divorced, we had never lived in the same town.  Nervously eyeing my new husband, wondering if he would lunge for the freshly unpacked moving boxes and start filling them immediately upon having just heard this news, I tried to make sense of what I’d just heard.

“There’s acrimony afoot, Watson,” I thought as I sorted through why he would choose now to move so close.  He had stated an intent to live closer to the children earlier this month, but then when he was down here for the weekend, he was an hour late to get them, irritated that having them for a few hours was cramping his wanderlust, and refused to have them for five hours longer when he had the opportunity to (it was Sunday, and he wasn’t leaving until the next evening.). Although I’d initially supported his desire to be more involved with the kids, his recent behavior caused me to cast a wary eye on the whole idea of him relocating here. Greg’s irresponsibility would pretty much be in our face, and there was nothing I could do to prevent this from happening.

Last year, the guardian ad litem in this custody case had flown down from North Carolina to Atlanta for the day to interview us, the children, and any friends we could provide who could shed some light on our character. Guardian ad litems are professionals who are appointed by the court to do a home study of both environments, gather as much information as possible, and then make a formal recommendation for placement.  As we were driving back toward the airport at the end of the day, she had asked if I would consider a 50/50 split in visitation should Greg choose to relocate near us.  Knowing there was definitely a “right answer” here, this was a no-brainer.  “Sure,” I said immediately, knowing that I would consider and probably dismiss such a notion.  One week with mom, and the other with dad?  I couldn’t see that as being conducive to a settled existence for anyone, although I know of some who lived on that schedule.  Although technically I hadn’t lied, I resented this entire set of hoops we had to jump through.  Authenticity is rarely rewarded, I found out the hard way.

At the custody hearing after I was awarded primary custody of both children, it was determined that the guardian ad litem would remain appointed to our case for the period of one year should we have the need to be in court again.  Shortly after, Greg announced that he had begun working for the guardian ad litem as a volunteer.  He took cases that she was too busy to take, wrote a report, and submitted them to her for her review.  Unethical?  To say the least.

In North Carolina, the issue of child support is completely separate from custody matters.  There is even a separate courtroom that deals solely with child support issues.  I waited for several months before reporting the change in custody to North Carolina, which resulted in a redetermination of the amount (since this was now an issue of me having primary of both children rather than a split custody situation).  That court date was later in the month.  Since I had previously signed off on arrears of nearly $16,500 for Greg in years past, trying to “help him out,” I had the sneaking suspicion that the primary motivation for this sudden move was perhaps to dodge child support.  At present, his ordered amount was less than $50, but was set to jump to nearly ten times that amount. While I applaud an intention to be more involved in the children’s lives, I do not support irresponsibility or inauthenticity.

Child support is the weighty matter between divorced folks with children, is it not?  Children are not inexpensive.  They need support.  The amount of support ordered is fraught with a huge negativity potential, and it takes both divorced spouses valuing harmony in order to continue a well-managed relationship for the kids.  That is often not the case, unfortunately. Especially when there is an immature or irresponsible person in the mix.

Dealing gracefully while holding onto clear boundaries is not always so easy when dealing with an unpredictable person.  I am often caught off-guard when another person is behaving irresponsibly or negatively, as I value traits quite the opposite.  I flat out don’t know what to say or do for a few minutes, and that has always bothered me.  Ah, the dreaded mismatch in values.

I imagine it will not be easy when Greg moves here next week and simply wants to drop by.  I will have a difficult time when he promises to be here by a certain time to get the kids and then doesn’t show for several hours.  It’s painful to watch my children hurt.

In a self-depricating manner, I’ve often joked that I am here as an example of what not to do. If I have learned anything in the last 9 years, it is to be as gracious as possible, but not be a doormat.  Prior to all of this I had no idea what that looked like, but have been enlightened incrementally along the way.  To my dismay, I’m still learning this.

Not being a doormat means not allowing a lot of extra visitation when that’s not what’s written on the court modification.  If I’m not following the order, then I have no right to expect a court to enforce it (at least not without getting fussed at for my lack of cooperation anyway).  Not being a doormat means not signing off on so much in arrears (not once, but twice!) because someone’s credit is so bad and they “just can’t catch a break.”  If it had been me begging for arrears to be written off, my creditors would have smiled, but not backed up one inch.  So neither should I.  This money is not for me (or else I would certainly dismiss it–anything to not have to see this person again, you know?).  This is for the kids. Cancelling Greg’s responsibility is really enabling his continued irresponsibility, and robbing him of the chance to step up.

So how will I hold onto the revised boundaries after this new juncture?  Not without a large support-squad, I’m sure.  To be continued…

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In Search of Renewed Hope

No path leads from a knowledge of that which is to that which should be. –Albert Einstein

Confession: I watch Murder She Wrote.  Most of us have a show that we still watch, whether it’s Andy Griffith, Bonanza, or the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

When my parents separated in 1984, my dad moved to Honolulu while my mom, my siblings and I moved back to Santa Cruz, CA, to be near her parents and start over.  She immediately got us involved in a large Baptist Church.  She got involved in playing the piano and organ for services, involved in Divorce Care, and of course Sunday and Wednesday services.  I look back on that period of loss and transition in our lives, and am very grateful to her for giving us that anchor during such a chaotic time. Our frequent involvement gave us a consistent and stable community to belong to, which helped us navigate the healing process more smoothly.

On Sunday nights after we got home from church, my mom would make buttered toast and hot chocolate for my brother, sister, and me (I was the oldest).  Murder She Wrote came on at 8pm, and mom let us stay up past our bedtime to watch it.  It was refreshing to watch a glaring injustice be set aright within a 60 minute time frame.  During that period when not a whole lot made sense, this weekly one hour show was a sort of escape into a world where something made sense and justice prevailed.  Gradually, as years went by after my parent’s divorce, life felt okay again.

Wrestling with an unsettled heart this morning, I decided I needed a reintroduction of justice, however fictional, to improve my mood.  I randomly chose an episode off of the DVR list, and it happened to be one where Mrs. Fletcher was being falsely accused and somewhat bullied by the opposing attorney into settling.  Refusing to give in, she said, “I am still naïve enough to believe that truth wins out in our justice system.”  Listening to her say that, watching the conviction on her face (okay, I’m aware it’s only acting, but still…), I remember a time when I believed in that too.  I don’t believe in that anymore, and I wish that was different.

It’s unthinkable to me that truth and justice were so very out of reach in our custody suits.  Although we got what we wanted, a lot was lost, and I do not know if it can be regained.  I used to believe strongly in goodness and truth winning out.  It didn’t.  God delivered our children to us anyway, but the judge, the opposing attorney, Stacy’s family and friends, all those parents and teachers at the small Reformed private school, my husband’s own sister, and a host of other people in that small Georgia town still have an extremely unjustified and unearned negative opinion of my husband and me.  The magnitude of the damage Stacy did by twisting the truth and blatantly spreading vicious lies, and how successful she was at convincing others to buy into that perception still overwhelms me.  Watching that angry judge point his finger and scream that my husband was a liar and a manipulator, knowing that he had formulated his opinion on sheer gossip or prejudice (anything but actual evidence!)….listening to the judge accuse me of planning to use my counseling connections to provide “objective opinions” to the court regarding the children (how can someone form an opinion of me when they’ve never even spoken to me before?)…was deconstructing, to say the least.  I lost my faith in our justice system through all this. And in people. How can a lie be that powerful and that persistent?  Watching my husband be ordered to pay $1,500 in contempt fines when he so clearly was not in contempt…devastated me.  The glaring injustices took aim, and nothing was there to stop the madness.

Never mind about the opposing attorney.  He was only doing what he was hired to do.  But the judge is supposed to be a person who will actually listen to both sides, listen to the evidence presented and notice when there is a definite lack thereof.  He is not to consider gossip, especially if one of the parties is a friend of a friend of his wife.  And to whom shall we go when he does consider ex parte information?  To whom shall we appeal when he listens to our accuser, but disregards evidence that disproves her accusations?  I’m talking about hard evidence such as emails from her, videos of her doing the opposite of what she said she did, receipts, expert witness psychological evaluation reports and testimony.  All that stands as nothing against accusations that cannot be substantiated?  Is Stacy that well connected?

Watching one of the Reformed private school teachers appear on Stacy’s behalf was difficult.  As he passed me in the outer hallway and nodded uncomfortably, I wondered what it would do to his pious sensibilities if he had known he was defending “an adulterer” to use their phrasing.  This was craziness at its finest hour.  “Christians” fighting Christians.  We all claim to serve the same God. So why all these lies?  Why all the mud-slinging and believing the accuser?  I could almost hear the ancient Jewish crowd, “Free Barabbas!”  My stomach turned for solidly two years as we endured countless court appearances trying to resolve this.

I want my faith in justice back.  I don’t know how I’ll find it, but even this is part of the healing process.  Does this come back?  Cynicism is death to the soul, and I don’t want to be that way.  All I know to do is to keep searching for what’s true, and what lasts.  And keep looking up, stubbornly believing that I will see light again.

Prayer today:  God, thank you for helping us move to Savannah, this beautiful place near my beloved ocean, away from that horrible place somewhere in middle Georgia.  My soul needs healing.  Or maybe my spirit does.  It’s shattered.  Why did I ever learn it was important to tell the truth when liars are believed?  Why were our exes allowed to conduct such a smear campaign on us?  How did that happen so successfully when none of it was true?  Maybe it’s one of those things that will never make sense.  Sort of like waiting around for an apology from someone who will likely never give it.  I need to set this weight down now and move on with living.  Please heal this wound in my heart, the one that does not believe in justice prevailing or goodness in people. I don’t even trust most Christians anymore, and that is devastating to me.  They’re supposed to be a safe community. Some are and some clearly are not.  I’m weary of getting hurt.  It feels like it takes longer to recover.  Help me to see beauty again, and restore me. Help me to forgive these people even more than I thought I had, recognizing that my very well-being is at stake if I don’t.  I know You will.

He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul; –Psalm 23:2-3

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Seriously?

O God, take up my cause!  Defend me against these ungodly people.  Rescue me from these unjust liars.  For you are God, my only safe haven.  Why have you tossed me aside?  Why must I wander around in darkness, oppressed by my enemies?  –Psalm 43:1-2

I had no idea in the beginning of custody litigation how very literally I would be living out passages in the Old Testament of the Bible. Lots of imperfect people fighting against impossible odds, trusting in a God they could not physically see to deliver them while being mocked.  But God delivered those who trusted Him, and we certainly got to see that for ourselves as well.  Human eyes want to see it resolve immediately though.  I’ve noticed that more often than not, God has a different time table.

March 2010: Greg had withheld visitation from me for 2 months by this time. I emailed him, left messages, and texted, trying to arrange visitation. His responses fell into one of two categories: my communication was ignored or I received a nasty-gram email.  This was getting worse.  I’d been down this road with him before.  With a modification and show cause order freshly filed in North Carolina, I tried to set that aside and attend to adjusting to my new life in Georgia.

A lot in life happens unexpectedly, including the timing of things.  Quite often, it’s the timing that becomes the intensifier in an already stressful situation.  I was in the middle of completing an online master’s degree I’d started before I met and married my husband, which demanded a solid 35-40 hours a week of my time. The number of children in our household changed frequently to accomodate visitation schedules.  I was trying to figure out our budget and needs of our new household while trying to help the younger children adjust to their new schools. I was also still adjusting to some differences in culture. You would think things would not be all that different from one southern state to another–that was a surprise.  The adjustments were dizzying. Our support system was slim to none. We had tried several churches, but to my dismay, could not find one to call “home” for reasons I’ll get into in a future blog.  My family was scattered among the West Coast and South Pacific while my husband’s family was surprisingly not demonstrating a great deal of consistency or support.  We felt very much on our own.

As you can see, we’d scarcely had time to even blink before a parallel situation began developing.

Switching tracks to my husband’s side of the story, his divorce with his ex-wife, Stacy, had been finalized fairly recently before we were married, although they’d been living apart much longer.

In 2008, Stacy had told my husband that she had been seeing her old high-school boyfriend from 25 years ago, and wanted a divorce.  Counseling was too little, too late. Stacy was trying to figure out how to leave while my husband was scrambling to hold the marriage together.  Upon issuing her declaration of independence, they spent about ten months sleeping in separate rooms before she finally filed for divorce. My husband moved out, and finished counseling.  Stacy did not finish counseling.  She got a full-time job as a teacher in a nearby county and put the children in an expensive private school without consulting my husband, where she made inroads with the staff and teachers. (These connections would become important later.)  Her father was immeasurably wealthy, and money was no object.  Meanwhile, my husband was on a teacher’s salary and under an order to pay her $950 a month, $300 of which was for their private school education (a matter over which my husband had no say).  Stacy had wanted $1,600 a month initially, but thank goodness for government formulas (something I never thought I would say).

Stacy was not the type to explain anything to her children.  The value appeared to be that children are told what to do, say, and think, but they were never told what to expect.  Their feelings certainly didn’t register with her.  They’re children, after all, and it seemed she expected them to feel whatever she told them to feel.  As a counselor, a position like that is not entirely helpful, particularly when set against the backdrop of a divorce.  The kids were still trying to wrap their minds around the new reality that they saw their dad every other week from Wednesday to Monday, wondering what on earth had just happened that had rocked their world so completely.  Nothing was explained to them.

In March 2010 (the same month we filed suit in North Carolina), Stacy decided to introduce the children to her old boyfriend who she was now involved with.  The children, having no idea about the history with this individual, were not quite sure what to think.  The boyfriend began sleeping over, although Stacy denied this when her children asked about it.  The older child, however began noticing that things weren’t adding up. She knew that the new boyfriend had moved in his pets, his clothes, his bathroom things, and birth control contraceptives suddenly appeared in the drawer.  Every morning before the children were picked up by a neighbor for school, their mother called them and instructed them to “leave the garage door unlocked,” but would not answer why when the older child finally mustered the courage to ask.  The older child noticed after a month’s time of this that the boyfriend was driving toward the house one morning as they were leaving it.  She knew for sure what was going on now, and it was sickening.  As the entire backdrop of their “Christian” lives came crumbling down, revealing a far uglier backdrop behind it, she wondered if any of it had been real to begin with.

In July 2010, both children, ages 14 and nearly 12, asked my husband if they could begin living primarily with us, citing that they’d had enough of their mom’s lying, which was sad to hear. In Georgia, there is a state law that when a child reaches the age of 14, they can choose which parent with which to reside. You would think this would be an open-shut case, right? Not in this county. And certainly not with the judge we were assigned. The issue was the younger child. Again, Georgia law is currently that if a 14 year old child elects to live with the other parent and the younger sibling is between 11-13, then it is perhaps allowable for the younger to make the switch as well.

But nothing is easy when Stacy is involved. We knew that it did not matter how gently we proposed this to her, that it would still be considered an act of war. Stacy is a highly politicized and formidable adversary when she marks you as an enemy. Anyone can sling mud. It’s a true talent to know how to make it stick. Stacy makes it stick. Still, how does one say “no” to children who are miserable and begging to come live with you?

We composed the most respectful letter we could to Stacy, detailing the conversation the children had had with my husband and included the link to cite Georgia law. The letter stated that my husband would like to be able to do this peacefully and meet to discuss this further, that he understood this was a difficult topic, and he was trying to handle this as delicately as possible. He offered the alternative, saying if she chose to litigate it, she could do so of course, but that he did not want that for the sake of the children. Upon receiving it, her text was unexpectedly calm: “No, I don’t think so. It’s just not a good time. Why are you trying to be difficult?”

Here’s where the situation went south. Perhaps we could have handled this differently, but who ever has that sort of Wonka-vision when immediately in the situation? I had watched my husband endure two-hour long phone conversations with her as she shamed him, blamed him, accused him, ridiculed him, insulted him, and anything else involved in verbal abuse. Throughout their 18 year marriage, he’d simply taken her treatment thinking he must have deserved it somehow. He’d felt ashamed, like he was a miserable loser who failed at everything, never able to get anything right. He had believed her during their marriage when she’d told him he was an embarrassment, not a man of his word, controlling, manipulative, and that he had anger issues. (Having been happily married to the man for quite some time now, I can tell you he is nowhere near any of these things. He is indeed the most amazing man I’ve ever had the privilege to know.)

Something inside him snapped, a snap that was 18 years overdue it seemed to me, and he stood up to her. “Did you think I was asking, Stacy? Our oldest has chosen to live here, and Georgia law allows her to do so. I would like to talk with you more about this and the possibility of our other child coming too, but not until we’re both able to do so calmly” was my husband’s off-the-cuff text in response. “Did you think I was asking? See you in court!” she replied.

So now we were involved in two litigation suits in two different states at the same time. We had no idea of the impact of the brush fire that had just been started.

More soon…

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The Curtain is Pulled

And this is not all that is meaningless in our world.  In this life, good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good.  This is so meaningless!  –Ecclesiastes 8:14

Yes, truth is gone, and anyone who tries to live a godly life is soon attacked. –Isaiah 59:15

Entanglement in family law is like a trip even weirder than Alice in Wonderland.  Nothing makes sense.

What’s even more of a cognitive dissonance is being a follower of Christ and finding oneself in unwanted conflict with…wait for it…. service-project oriented, non-alcoholic drinking, non-smoking, non-cussing, Honey Pie-sweet, dipped in the wool, staunch Conservative Southern Baptists.  If I had known these people in some other capacity, I never would have believed they could be capable of such acrimony.   I would have swallowed the stories they spread about me and my husband hook, line, pole, and even Argyle sweater vest. And unfortunately, the exes were successful in turning many people against us.  I have never seen people who are so adept at charming the socks off of almost anyone, yet turn around and be so wicked when it’s just us.  It was an incredibly maddening experience.

Now that litigation is behind us, I have wrestled with how to tell this story in a way that is helpful, and not some bitter diatribe.  I’m not bitter.  Although the situation is not always peaceful with our exes, I have made peace as much as possible with them, and hold nothing against them.  What caused me anguish during the storm has turned into a passion to help other people now that the storm is over.

I hope our story is useful to those who are doing everything they can to diffuse conflict and promote peace while being treated as though they were abusive, cruel, bitter, lying manipulators (oh yes, we were called all of that and more).  ((And if I’m going to be accused of those things, I at least want to have earned it.))

I’m prayerfully telling these true stories, breaking them up into separate blogs, for the ones who are either going through unwanted custody conflict or who are contemplating a custody suit.  Names, locations, and other identifying information have been changed. My hope is that this helps you somehow.

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Some People Should Come With Warning Labels

Yesterday, I posted a question regarding what to do when a former spouse is actively trying to ruin your life, which is a tragic situation and an all-too-common one.  I have heard countless stories of people who were very frustrated as they tried to work with a former spouse despite toxic behavior on the other end.  I’ve walked through that landmine as well, and while it seemed I would not survive the ordeal intact, I am actually grateful for having walked that road now, as strange as that seems to say.  I can better understand the complications and dynamics not captured by words.  Even though my story is not the same as others, I know how this feels: the despair, the frustration, the anxiety, all of it.  It robs you of your dignity, your sense of well-being, and drains you of your hope.  Your energy and time seem largely invested in making this go away.  I know this road.

I have experienced sitting in a courtroom, helplessly listening in horror as situations are twisted beyond belief and my reputation is trashed along with my children’s and husband’s.  I have endured frequent drive-by’s, collaboration with ex-spouses, attempts to sandbag my life in any way possible, and thousands of dollars in litigation expenses plus associated costs.  I know.  I get this.

If you can identify with any of this and are nearly on the verge of insanity trying to figure out what to do, I hope this helps you.

We’ve all seen dramas like this play out, either on TV or during lunch in the high school quad area. It’s different though, when it’s happening to us. It becomes personal. Past mistakes and poor choices are twisted, taken out of context, and repackaged for a formal audience. There it is, my past shame hanging on a wall before strangers I’d had no idea even existed two years before. Adult reindeer games. I don’t have a stomach for this, and neither do a lot of people. What does a person do when there’s an enemy in the camp, and no real way to disentangle ourselves from that person? Such wicked behavior feels like a continual life rape, and it’s a very powerless feeling at times.

Donald Miller recently tweeted that the most attractive characteristic in a person is the story they are telling the world. “We stop and stare at stories,” he wrote.

I think that’s the crux of the matter here. “What am I going to do with this?” comes the question. Because we are not able to successfully slap a shock collar on people who enjoy hitting below the belt, we cannot extract a grievance fee, nor can we make them wear warning labels for the aid and betterment of society at large, I’m afraid all we’re left with is ourselves.  What can we control here?  What is not within our control?  The disguised beauty in all this is that I was forced to actually stop and think about what a well-lived life actually looks like.  The complications of situations with exes actually made me think about it.  I realized that this is truly a sink or swim experience here.  If I was not active about pursuing and maintaining positivity, then I found myself drowning in the negativity.  Who wants to live out of that wormhole?  Is that what life is about, walking around angry and frustrated, bemoaning the bitter injustices heaped on our lives?  Something inside must agree that this is so if that’s how we spend our time and energy.  And what does that make me?  The good news here is that you have a choice, and it sets you free. A prerequisite to Step One is asking yourself if you want to be free of this burden of anger and despair.  If the answer is yes, keep reading.

You are the only person you can control.  Bottom line, no more secrets, that cat has flown out of the bag.  You cannot control what someone else chooses to do. That’s both good and bad news.  Bad: this means that I don’t get to make someone stop coming against me.  I can hope for it, but I cannot make them “play nice.”  Good:  they don’t get to control me either.  Here’s what that looks like:

Rather than react, I respond, and there is a difference. Rather than get angry, I choose to hold onto myself and not get lost in the whirlwind of the drama. Rather than hoping my ex gets trapped under something heavy, I choose to entrust the injustices to the One I chose to trust a long time ago, the Keeper of my soul. The surprising element in these choices is the freedom that piggybacks them. In deciding not to retaliate or allow anger to turn outside in, a heavy weight lifts off of my soul, and I am available to experience joy and beauty and positivity. In choosing to discover what life lessons I can learn from this toxic presence in my life that I am tied to for the next “x” amount of years, negativity falls even more by the wayside.

An ex-spouse’s behavior is not going to dictate the person I choose to be, and personally, I’m not sure I would have had a sharp vision of what that looks like had it not been for this adversity.  (So, um…thank you, ex-spouses?  And by the way, here are your warning labels.  Affix immediately.)

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