Something very bad happened to me exactly ten years ago tonight.
In the past ten years, I have seen more, experienced more, learned more, grown more than in the previous 33 combined. Because this blog is all about physical, mental and spiritual growth, and because tonight is the tenth anniversary of the most profoundly life changing event in my life, I’ve decided to share the story of September 14, 2003. It was so long ago. But it may as well have happened yesterday.
After all, I remember that night like it happened yesterday.
Some things you don’t ever completely heal from. There will always been a scar or two. It doesn’t matter how many times someone in your family tells you differently. It doesn’t matter how much encouragement a friend offers. It doesn’t matter how much money you invest in therapy. It doesn’t matter how many hours you sit and listen to a pastor.
No. Some things just stick with you until you die.
Eventually that feeling you have that your heart is about to explode inside your chest subsides. The time comes when the nightmares fade away. One day you realize that you are breathing normally again. Eventually, by sheer force of will, you pick yourself up and dust yourself off. You cry your last tears (after you have cried so bitterly and so hard and so long and so much that you can’t remember a life without crying) and you slowly–ever so slowly–begin to move forward and to live again. Maybe you even bring yourself to a place of being able to forgive.
But never, ever do you forget. Not ever.
Ten years ago tonight, my Journey to Mental, Physical and Spiritual Strength began in earnest. It was not a journey I wanted to take. It was not a journey I thought that I needed to take. It was not a journey that I had any idea that I was about to take.
But I believe in a sovereign God and He had other plans for my life.
I often refer to myself as a “Pilgrim making progress,” alluding to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. And oh dear God what a journey it has been leaving The City of Destruction and scraping, crawling and clawing my way to The Celestial City. I’m not even close. But I keep hiking.
A Dark Anniversary
I was married to a woman whom I will refer to as “I.B.”
I had met her at the tender age of fifteen, our first year of high school. I was hooked instantly and I instantly placed her on a pedestal upon which she did not deserve to be placed upon. Seventeen years later I would sit on the floor of my church and tell an elder who was desperately trying to keep me alive that I “worship the ground she walks on.”
That–in a nutshell–was the entire problem.
She and I became the very best of friends. She knew me better than anyone else ever had (up to that point) and I trusted her implicitly. Back in those days, I lacked the courage that it took to approach a girl for anything more than friendship and so I settled for the friendship. But I became more and more convinced that she was the answer to all of the ills (I had a very long list of ills) in my life.
Then one day she moved far away and I was devastated. I tried so hard to go on with the business of living my life without her, but I couldn’t. I missed her desperately and I never forgot her. I idolized her more and more. She became bigger than life for me. She had become a false god to me; my golden calf.
All the while I was shaking my fist at God, so angry with Him for so many reasons. I booted Him out of my life and turned my back on Him. Doing so, however, left me with a big hole in my heart. She had become a square peg and I was doing everything I could to shove her into the God shaped round hole left in my heart.
Then one day it happened: In a flash, my life changed, I thought for the better. I was wrong. It would not be the first time that my life would change in one brief, dramatic moment in time. Likewise, it would not be the first time that I was wrong about whether it was for the better or for the worse.
Shortly after Christmas of 1995 my telephone rang. She was giving me an opportunity; I took that opportunity. I told myself that I would not again make the “mistake” that I had made nine years earlier of not opening my mouth to tell her how I really felt. I reasoned that even if she didn’t return my feelings, I couldn’t possibly ache any more than I already did. So this time I opened my mouth and she opened hers. Six months later in June of 1996, I moved her to Colorado and three years after that, she and I were married.
It was a relationship and a marriage that never should have been. It was forced. And it was deeply, radically outside of the will of God.
Sunday, the Fourteenth Day of September, Two Thousand and Three
“What are you doing?” I asked her. “I’m just organizing the basement. Putting the suitcases away,” her voice came across my cell phone as I was driving from Gunnison, Colorado to Salida on Monarch Pass. She even told me that she loved me.
I would never hear her voice again.
To this day, I do not grasp how she had me so completely convinced that all was well. The signs were all there. I’m a smart man with wide open eyes. Yet for some reason, I had chosen not to look at those signs and I am still astonished by my own decision to choose simple-mindedness.
I was out of town that weekend with my parents, doing what I love most in my life: photographing abandoned mining camps (called “ghost towns”) in Colorado’s mountains. She protested when I asked her to come with me the Friday before. She was working on the weekends, helping to make ends meet, but she was unusually insistent about staying behind so that she could work. And so, acquiescing to her protests, I left town without her.
She had a plan.
I called her again at about 9:30 that night to let her know that I was about ten miles away. Her phone went right to voice mail. For the first time I felt real fear, but I brushed it off.
It was very silent when I opened the front door. A kind of deafening silence. The cat was there. There were a few lights on. And even though I didn’t know she wasn’t there, I knew she wasn’t there. I don’t know how to explain that feeling. Unless you’ve been there, there really is no way to explain that haunting feeling.
On the kitchen counter, she left legal paperwork with absolutely no explanation. I will never, ever forget the words at the top: “Dissolution of Marriage.” Those words are forever emblazoned on my conscience.
I don’t remember much after that. I do remember screaming. It was a strange sound. I had never made a sound quite like that. It was loud and guttural. It was savage. It was instinctual. I left that house and I never did return.
I remember laying in a bed at my parent’s home that night. I remember my heart pounding so intensely that I truly believed it would explode, and I asked God to allow just that to happen. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was suspended in a strange purgatory. I was alive, but at the same time, I was as dead as I could be.
People tried to help. I remember the words, “I understand,” coming from almost everyone I spoke to. To this day, those words still make me angry because they came from well intentioned people who had no clue, no concept, no idea of what I was going through.
Even people who have been through a divorce do not get it. And I was being told, “I understand” by people who had been married for ten, twenty, thirty and forty years. It was…insulting. Well intentioned, but insulting.
Unless a person has been through true, classic spousal abandonment, there is no understanding what the person who has is going through. Absolutely none at all.
That awful night was the second time that my life changed in a flash. This time I believed it was for the worse. Like the first time, I was wrong again. But it would take walking through hell itself to understand how wrong I was.
The Pilgrim’s Progress
“And we have known that to those loving God all things do work together for good, to those who are called according to purpose.” –Romans 8:28 (YLT)
In the days and weeks and months and literally years that followed, I got all kinds of advice from people who didn’t have a clue (my favorite bit of advice was, “man up!”). I listened to all the friends who tried to comfort me. I paid out thousands upon thousands of dollars to all kinds of therapists. I took lots of medications which were supposed to ease my depression but did nothing but cloud my mind. But ultimately none of that mattered.
In the end, there was only one thing that mattered: that day, years earlier, when I got on my knees and said one more prayer asking for the reconciliation of my marriage. But this time I ended it differently: “…but I give my marriage to You. Do with it as You will. And no matter what, I will follow You.”
And I meant it.
It cannot be stated emphatically enough that this was the most difficult prayer that I had ever prayed in my life. It was a sea change moment for me. It was the first time in my life when I truly put God first, above and beyond everything that I thought mattered–even above the very thing that I thought I had to have in order to continue breathing. I said that prayer through shaking hands and shaking voice and with a great deal of fear. I knew exactly what His answer was going to be, but in finally submitting to God, it opened the flood gates and allowed God to start working in my life.
Once I gave my heart back to Him, He ripped away that square peg that I had shoved into the round hole where He was supposed to be and gently–ever so gently–the God of Angel Armies retook His rightful place in my heart.
In that small, simple prayer, I handed the greatest idol in my life over to God. I knew that breaking my dependence upon that idol would take years of purposeful walking away from a place of independence–where I thought I was supposed to be–to a place of more and more dependence upon God and not looking back.
Several days later, on Sunday, November 9, 2003, at Boulder Valley Christian Church under the leadership of Pastor Harvey Friesen, sitting in a chair, crying in heaves, I recommitted my life to God. I was flanked by several church elders and other men whom had come alongside me and had walked with me those past few months.
Ultimately my marriage was not reconciled. I never saw or spoke to “I.B.” again. I didn’t go to court; my lawyer represented me. Shortly before that relationship was finally fully severed by the so-called “family court,” I learned that she had been having an affair which had started one month before she abandoned our marriage. While someone might rightfully think that discovering her unfaithfulness could have been harmful, it was actually healing for me and I think it was God at work. It was healing because for the first time since meeting her all those years earlier, the blinders were removed. I finally saw her for what she was and what she was capable of being.
I worshipped her no longer.
My relationship with God was healing and entering a new phase. Spiritually and emotionally I was growing in ways that I couldn’t imagine and at a rate that I had never experienced in my life.
I didn’t understand this at the time, but God told me “no” to the reconciliation of my marriage in order to give me something so much greater, so much more wonderful, so life giving. But He was requiring me to wait and to grow.
My pain wasn’t done. Not by a long shot.
Faith in God is like a river with ebbs and flows and highs and lows (anyone who says it isn’t is a liar and will gladly mail you a “prayer cloth” for the low, low tithe of only twenty five dollars). Some days my faith was as strong as a rock and I knew that no matter how bad things got, as long as God walked ahead of me, I would survive. Other days, I languished in my fear and depression–handing over an idol doesn’t just magically take these things away–and tried to do things my way.
In the midst of my fear and anguish I found a deeply psychologically damaged woman and threw myself into a second, absolutely disastrous marriage. This proved to be the most amazingly accurate real-life version of The Twilight Zone that I personally have ever encountered. It would take another four years in hell and witnessing a level of unfaithfulness that I didn’t imagine was possible to extricate myself from the sloth that I had fallen into, and I had only me, myself and I to blame. But even in this desert, God loved me, walked beside me and was faithful to teach me and to force me to grow.
Ultimately, after the unfathomable anxiety, the heart pounding despair and that all consuming fear began to subside, I went into a place of extended, low-level depression and ultimately I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which, when the right buttons are pressed, still haunts me to this day.
Eventually after coming to the understanding that reacting to my circumstances wasn’t getting me anything except an even darker version of what had nearly destroyed me in the first place, I took a step back and I quieted down. I concentrated on me, on my relationship with the artist of the universe and on where He wanted me to go. I learned to live with myself. I learned to cook for myself. I learned to tuck myself in at night.
“You Can Hold My Hand…if You Want to!”
And then one day, God patted me on the back and gave me a miracle.
On Friday, April 8, 2011, I met for the very first time, God’s answer of “YES!” Long ago back in 2003, I believed that God had said no to me. That He had chosen not to answer my prayer.
I was wrong. In fact, He had chosen to answer my prayer, but in a way that was different than what I had expected and in a way that changed my life forever. This time, however, my life didn’t change in a flash. This time my life changed slowly, gently, purposefully and that change was not forced by the sheer strength of my will. It was authored and painted and orchestrated all the way by an artist who loves me so much that it is impossible to fully comprehend. I felt God smile that night.
I met God’s gift to me at the Carmike Thoroughbred Theater in Franklin, Tennessee and I took her to a movie and dinner. Just as strongly emblazoned upon my conscience is the sweet, simple invitation which she whispered in my ear that night: “You can hold my hand…if you want to.”
I did hold her hand. And then I fell in love with her. And I pursued her. And I married her.
A Miracle…Forty Years in the Making
I had learned to hate September 14. It was a day of desolation for me. Every single year it was a reminder of the worst day of my life. It was the Devil’s way of twisting the knife that had been pounded into my heart on that dark and awful Sunday night in 2003. I dreaded that dark anniversary every single year.
And then, one day, one simple, sweet, beautiful sun-bathed day, I forgot all about it.
As long as I live on this planet, I will never, ever forget Wednesday, the fourteenth day of September, two thousand and eleven.
I was so busy preparing, planning and getting ready for a big event that I had completely forgotten that it was the fourteenth of September. My mind was elsewhere. My mind was on happy things. My mind was on great things.
And then it hit me. Like a boulder falling from a thousand feet above, it hit me. And I fell to my knees. I was crying again. Quite literally, I was sobbing right there on the ground, on my knees. But this time, I was crying for joy and instead of praying for reconciliation, I was praying a prayer of great thanksgiving.
You see, that day was the anniversary of a horrible event in my life. One that had haunted me for eight long and painful years. But I had forgotten all of that, because that day also represented a new and awesome anniversary, one of wonder and joy, one that God had planned on and set up before time even existed.
That day was the birthday of my wife-to-be and here I was with a smile on my face and love in my heart, planning and preparing to give her the best birthday she had ever had.
Forty years earlier, God had redeemed this dark and disastrous day when the world said hello to a beautiful baby girl named Taryn Joy Zabel. And now, forty years later, I knelt on the ground crying with absolute pure joy, thanking Him for His mighty love, His mighty grace, His impeccable timing and, yes, His crazy-like-a-fox sense of humor.
On Tuesday, the fourteenth day of September, one thousand nine hundred and seventy one God gave birth to my “Hopeful.” The companion who will walk beside me and complete the journey to The Celestial City with me.
God redeemed the day and He took my breath away.
My dearest friend,
Today is Saturday, the fourteenth day of September, two thousand and thirteen.
Today is your birthday, once again my wife. And I want you to know and to never forget just how much I love you, just how much I adore you and just how much I understand that you are indeed a miracle and that God has used you to restore my heart, my soul and my very faith in His goodness.
God had a great and wonderful plan when you were born forty two years ago.
You’ve gone through a bunch of your own very hard stuff. You’ve seen some very rough times of your own. But your heart is golden. It’s as soft and as fluffy as new fallen snow. Your way is gentle. Your faith is as strong as a solid mountain of granite. I have never met another human being with such a simple, genuine faith in and love of God.
Truly, you are a woman after God’s own heart.
You were born for many reasons. Some you have discovered. Some you will yet discover as time inevitably marches forward. But on this day, for this hour, in this moment, know this: One of the great reasons that you were born was to be an answer to a prayer that I wouldn’t pray for another thirty-two years.
God, using you, has restored the joy in my life. God, through you, has given me peace. God, in creating you, has recreated me.
Hear me: I do not worship the ground you walk on, and that is the very greatest gift that I can possibly give to you and to us on this day, your birthday. I will never turn you into an idol. But I will always do my very best to honor you and to cherish you and to love you. And I will never, ever forget the great miracle that you are.
Onward, Pilgrim. Onward!
And so, my journey continues. But now, I walk it with a friend. A dear, beautiful friend.
I have left the City of Destruction. I have been caught in the Sloth of Despond. I have visited the House of the Interpreter. I have climbed Hill Difficulty. I have survived both the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I have rested with Gaius at his inn. I have been deceived in Vanity Fair. I have taken a drink from the River of the Water of Life. I have been jailed in Doubting Castle. I came very close to going to sleep on The Enchanted Ground. I have seen the River of Death.
My Journey to Mental, Physical and Spiritual Strength goes on. I continue on my walk to The Celestial City. I have been through much. I have survived terrible things, if only to become the kind of person who understands terrible things.
“Come to the edge! And he came. And Apollonaris pushed him. AND HE FLEW!” –Willie Jolley
#AndHeFlew #MindStrength #SpiritStrength