I used to think he'd leave if I weren't perfect.
I know; nobody's perfect. But I was close. I was perfect in all the ways people appear to be perfect. And for a while, that was enough.
Until it wasn't.
People said I was his favorite. And I was. He took me everywhere--shotgun my always-seat in the grey van with the wood paneling. I sang Judds songs with him and ate at old people buffet restaurants and collected the pencils after group Bible studies. I watched the way he smiled when other adults noticed me. I dressed up and wore bows in my hair because I liked it when he thought I looked beautiful. I memorized Bible verses at camp to make him proud. With him around, I never acted like anything other than a perfectly mannered tiny adult, because I thought it pleased him. And nothing mattered to me more than pleasing him.
Other than pleasing God.
Pleasing God mattered more. And pleasing God was harder.
I remember talking to my brother once about what would happen if we were to die in a sudden, freak accident, like if we fell off a cliff and in surprise and desperation said a cuss word. I remember he and I being so afraid we'd cuss and not have time to repent and end up in hell forever.
When I was sixteen my boyfriend and I totaled his car, wrapped it around a palm tree, and my first thought in the seconds after I realized we were both okay was of my conversation with my little brother and how happy I was I hadn't cussed. Maybe I didn't have anything to worry about.
Later, when my little brother would die in a car accident... Well, by then things had started to change. But still, I couldn't help but wonder...
I'm standing at the kitchen island with my right hand clutching the cold, round corner. I am holding it like I'm in an earthquake and it's the only thing not shaking, like if I hold on maybe the man in front of me will take back what he just said and everything will be the same again.
He says, "I've never thought you were perfect." And the floor falls away and even the kitchen island can't save me from the shattering.
I used to think if I were perfect he wouldn't leave. I never considered he might never have thought I was perfect.
It's late. So late. And I'm driving from Abilene to Austin, racing through thick dark under a sky of streaming stars. I'm on the phone with my mom. She's at the hospital. My Papa is dying. She says maybe tonight.
Would you like to talk to him?
Would I like to talk to him?
All of a sudden I'm riding in the van with him and he's telling me stories in funny voices. I'm telling him to look at the road while he drives. I'm nine.
And then I'm standing in his office at church telling him I'm going to talk about Jephthah's daughter in my ladies' day speech and he's telling me, "Well, darlin', I'm not sure that's a good idea." And we're launched into our very first theological argument. I'm thirteen.
And then I'm walking down the aisle at my wedding with my dad, watching my groom and my papa side by side, both smiling so big. I'm nineteen.
The memories unfold quicker and quicker until they're a blur of perfect.
Almost every moment with my papa is perfect. Honestly--I remember so little of the bad. Others in his life have less glowing impressions. But I am the first granddaughter. I wonder if I'm his favorite because he's been his best self with me. I wonder if he thinks he has to be perfect for me like I feel with him sometimes. Not because he told me that. Not because he ever gave me one reason to think it. Just because somewhere down the road, probably at church, I learned that love is dependent upon performance. And if I can't be good enough, maybe I don't deserve his love.
I pick up the phone and he says, "I'm afraid you've spoiled me."
I was baptized when I was nine. I knew every answer to every Bible class question. I made my own tracts on salvation for the church tract rack. I read my Bible every day. I spoke at church women's events starting at age ten. I memorized more scripture than anyone else at Christian camp. I wrote skits for youth rallies. I dated a boy in preaching school. I always wore dresses to church. I also made straight A's, was captain of the safety patrols and eventually got a full scholarship to Christian college which I began after translating for a mission trip to Costa Rica.
There are two reasons to be that girl (one legitimate, one not): 1. You really love and like God. 2. You think God won't love or like you if you aren't perfect.
Both those things were true for me. One brought me unspeakable joy. The other unspeakable self-loathing.
It's not so good to be married if you link love and perfection. It's no good because that person you married is just too close. They see things. They overhear things. You can try. You can exhaust yourself performing and hiding and saying all the right things. But eventually they will find you out. In your rush to dress in the trappings of perfect you will always leave something untucked or unbuttoned...
That night I realized I'd been outed--outed as the mess I knew I was, outed as proud and unkind and manipulative--everything changed. Because here I was a mess. Not perfect. Never perfect.
And here was my husband.
Still here. Here after years and years of being married to a woman he never thought was perfect. He said, "You're not perfect." He said it without a hint of compassion. He said it in one of those moments when he looks at me like I'm crazy, like I am much too old and too experienced to be this stupid. And then he said, "I love you."
I used to think he'd leave if I weren't perfect...
But here he was telling me he never thought I was. And all that love, over all those years, in all those moments, was rooted in something other than my A+ performance.
"I'm afraid you've spoiled me."
"I hope so," I say.
I say, "Papa, I want you to know I learned to love God watching you love God."
It's as true a thing as I know to say.
He's quiet. Crying, I think.
Then he asks me if I would remember something and in this moment I can't imagine how I could forget so I say I will.
He says, "Remember, you don't owe God."
And it is the last real sentence he ever speaks to me.
I used to think he'd leave if I weren't perfect but now I think he'll stay even though I'm not.
I believe it with my mind. It's true. I know I'm not perfect. And I know he loves me. My grandfather did. My husband does. Both of them loved and love me as well as imperfect men can--despite and in some cases because of my busted-ness.
But more than that, I know God loves me. I know He's still here. And I know He knows and has always known, I'm imperfect.
The struggle, the place where I can't quite figure things out, is in the application--the feeling loved no matter what and the living in light of it.
I still feel sometimes like God would love me more if I were better. I'm working on that. I'm praying about it and looking for truth (to replace the lie) in the pages of God's living Word. I try to catch myself when the feelings take over. He loves me no matter what. He loves me no matter what...
In terms of daily living, I don't think the point is, "God loves you. Be messy." Though I'm sure the point isn't "God loves you when you're clean."
I don't want to try so hard I fall into a pile of useless mush, exhausted from tackling something I was never meant to attempt.
But I also want to try hard because I like doing things God's way. It's better than the mess this flesh dumps me into.
I'm like Paul in Romans 7:
"For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it... For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
That is the most confusing thing ever and yet it feels so right and true...
Try to be perfect. You can't be perfect.
Be worthy of your salvation. We are all unworthy.
My sister-in-law had me take a psychological evaluation one night a couple years ago and I tested schizophrenic. I'm blaming God.
I've settled on this as helpful truth for going forward: "God loves you so much He'll clean your mess. Love God so much you'll let Him."
That means, I'm trying to let God do the mess-cleaning. I'm trying to figure out how to give myself grace while also aspiring to more. I'm trying to let God use the places I'd prefer to hide, allowing Him to shine through my cracks even as He repairs them.
I am trying to be openly and courageously imperfect.
And I'm being made perfect--not by me and my God-seeking achievements but by God who's in the business of making things perfect and loving them in the meantime.