For the last 23 years I’ve been carrying a story in my head that I’ve only verbally related to a handful of people. To be clear: it’s not a story that others particularly need to hear, because there’s not a great deal (besides the biographical) to be learned from it; but I’m at the point where I’m worried that if I don’t get the story written down I’ll start to lose some very important pieces of it to the sands of time. And I’m loath for that to happen, because it’s a story that has provided Jenn and I with much-needed spiritual sustenance over the decades.
The first person I ever told this story to, in fact, was Jenn, long before she was my wife. And that’s because God told me to tell her.
Have you ever heard the voice of God?
Have you ever thought you heard the voice of God?
If you can answer yes to either question, have you ever considered actually going public with what the voice told you? The proposition is almost scarier than acting on what the voice tells you.
The story goes like this.
In 1994, Jenn was still pretty much a complete stranger to me. In fact, she was still “Jenny,” a young woman at the church 10 years younger than me who’d been involved in all sorts of scandalous things that I pretty much ignored. Even though I’d heard some of the details via Jenny’s mom, with whom I worked in the music ministry at the church, I’ve always been the sort of person who figures other people’s business is other people’s business. I don’t make it mine, and my ears even tend to shut down when I hear it being talked about. I’m great with secrets, because I pretty much forget them immediately.
By July of 1994, though, the tenor of Jenny’s plight had changed pretty significantly. Her mom, and even the pastors who had been ministering to her, had become convinced that the end was pretty much at hand. Jenny’s latest attempt at suicide had landed her in a long stay in the psychiatric ward at Stevens Hospital in Edmonds, and Jenny’s mom had asked me a couple times if I wouldn’t go and talk to Jenny.
I steadfastly declined. I didn’t feel I had anything to offer in the way of constructive advice to a suicidal person, much less a suicidal young woman–and one about whom I knew virtually nothing. I had my own set of problems that other people didn’t know about, and the last thing I needed was to make some half-baked attempt at being an amateur-hour crisis counselor. I understood that Jenny’s mom respected me as a deacon and teacher, but really: this scenario was way out of my league.
So I resolved to simply go about my life.
I guess God wasn’t very satisfied with my responses to Jenny’s mom.
One afternoon as I was driving down I-5, a very distinct voice came into my head. It wasn’t thoughts, or ideas, like the cartoon light bulb coming on. It was words, audible words. And the words said: “You are going to go talk to Jenny, and you are going to tell her I sent you. Then you are going to tell her four things. The first thing is: ‘If you wanted to be dead, you’d be dead already. You don’t want to be dead.’ The second: ‘Coming as close to killing yourself as you have is not a sign of weakness; this is a sign of strength.’ The third: ‘There are people in this world with an acute understanding of the world’s brokenness, and you are one of them.’ Finally: ‘One day you are going to be stronger than Greg.’”
I didn’t drive off the road, but I can tell you that I was pretty much scared spitless. I immediately gained a new understanding of Jonah’s world.
First, I didn’t question for an instant that it was the voice of God. I had never experienced anything like that, and never have again. I can only say, from this experience, that if you doubt you’ve heard the voice of God, you probably haven’t. But if you have heard the voice of God, you will be absolutely certain you have. Without question.
Second, the very last place in the world I wanted to go was to visit some young woman on the pysch ward of Stevens Hospital. Nine West was to me as Nineveh was to Jonah. Huh-uh. Not on my priority list. At. All.
Third, I did have the advantage of Jonah’s lesson from which to learn–but I had no Tarshish toward which to flee. And I also had no inclination for a rendezvous with a whale or other such large biological course-correcter.
My earlobes burned with embarrassment at the sheer cringe-worthy chutzpah of such a mission, but I nonetheless resolved almost immediately to arrange the visit. Within a couple of days, on August 17, I was stepping out of the elevator on Stevens 9th Floor West.
The unit coordinator called Jenny to the desk to meet me, and walked down the hall to her room. It wasn’t really what I expected.
Yes, Nine West had one of the stereotypical “padded cells.” And Jenny had more than once spent her tour of duty in isolation. But when I visited her she was ensconced in a private, spacious room. She was comfortably dressed in street clothes, and sat on the bed. She appeared quite composed, and free from mental or emotional distress. I suppose I thought I’d be able to discern some evidence of self-or-otherwise-inflicted damage. Another time I might have been right, but not on this day.
In any event, Jenny was surprised to see me. She had been expecting a visitor–but not me. Anyone but me, really. Though she had played piano for the choir I directed, had done some hourly-wage transcription of letters for a biography I was working on, and had pulled weeds from my flowerbed along with her youth group cohort on a mission fundraiser, Jenny and I did not talk one-to-one about things of any import. At least, not prior to that day.
I pretty much jumped right in and reported that God had sent me to tell her several things. To her credit, she didn’t laugh at me, and she didn’t tell me to leave. Of course, by that time she had gotten used to spending time around people who thought their packs of cigarettes talked to them, or who had messages for her from demons, or who were convinced they’d been abducted by aliens. (I could tell you what she actually thought of me at the time, I suppose, but that would be Jenn’s story, not mine!)
So I said, “The first thing God says is that if you wanted to be dead, you’d be dead already. You don’t want to be dead.” She confessed that her overdoses had more been cries for help than anything, and deliberately under-administered for wiggle-room. She did believe her most recent plan, which had landed her on Nine West this go-around, was a pretty solid attempt at finality, however. That it had been thwarted due to external causes made assessing its effectiveness impossible, however.
I moved on to the second message: “Coming as close to killing yourself as you have is not a sign of weakness; this is a sign of strength.” I mentioned that I also, like many people, had considered killing myself too–a not-very-helpful tidbit of the type she had already heard far too many times. But in talking about this point a bit we discovered that my most recent (and closest) encounter with that urge had in fact taken place on the same Thursday night that Jenn had left home with her sister’s revolver. I was taken aback by that somewhat. But I pointed out that I’d never had the courage to actually act on such urges. Jenny pointed out that it was probably more a question of desperation for her rather than strength. I conceded that she may have been right; but I still wasn’t backtracking on the message.
To the third point: “There are people in this world with an acute understanding of the world’s brokenness, and you are one of them.” We talked about this a good deal, and Jenny pulled out her quote book to share some lines from East of Eden about this notion. I had also read East of Eden, and a number of the other books whose excerpts filled adjoining pages of Jenn’s book. I was surprised to find Jenny not only very well read, but possessing a fine appreciation of literary nuance. She hadn’t studied literature (yet), so the talent was innate. We did completely connect on the idea that the human experience–just walking around from day to day–could lead to a certain inescapable form of PTSD. The unexamined life may not be worth leading, as Socrates had claimed; but the nature of existence does not bear a great deal of examination if one’s psyche is too finely attuned to emotional disturbance.
Finally, I told her, God had assured that “one day you are going to be stronger than me.” I confessed that I had absolutely no idea what that meant.
After we compared notes on a few more items philosophical and none too religious, I made my preparations to depart as the unit coordinator reported that Jenny’s expected visitor had arrived. We had been talking somewhere just over an hour or so.
Jenny walked with me out to the elevator, and as I rode down I was filled with a very deep conviction, which I shared with her mother, that Jenny was going to be just fine.
Just over a month would pass before Jenny herself would discover tangible hope.
Two years would pass before Jenny would find grace and re-emerge as Jenn.
Another two years would pass before Jenn found release in forgiveness, and the year after finally consummate pure love.
And one day, long after, Jenn would herself hear the voice of God. But that, also, is Jenn’s story and not mine to tell.
I did eventually learn, however, what God meant when he said that Jenn would one day be stronger than me. I learned it one night in 2008, not long after Jenn’s disability had been finalized. We were lying in bed, and Jenn asked if I was going to pray. “What’s the point?” I asked through bitter tears.
Jenn prayed that night without me.
I didn’t tell her at the time, but as I lay awake that night I thought,”Huh. All along, I had assumed that God had intended those final words on Nine West for Jenny. Turns out, they were for me.”
After fourteen years and countless miracles, I had, nonetheless, given up on God.
Thank God that Jenn hadn’t, and that she didn’t give up on me–that she was stronger than that. Because God wasn’t even close to finished with us.
But as I’ve said, that’s Jenn’s story to tell.