Monday, July 8, 2013

Surprised by Love

Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook may have noticed that I posted a relationship change last week.  Several of you responded with great surprise.  However, none of you are more surprised than me.

If you have been watching me over the past three years since Bob's death, you would have seen a number of postings relating to being content with being single and growing into the idea of Jesus as my husband.  One such posting had to do with why I still wore my wedding ring (and Bob's welded to it), posted here written in September 2011.  The other was much more recent, at the three year anniversary of Bob's death, as I acknowledged that for the past year, I had been working toward seeing Jesus as my husband, and had witnessed a number of responses from Him in that light.  That post can be seen here.

I truly believed that I would be single for the rest of my life - not out of resignation...not because I believed God "called" me to that...not even because I happen to live in Africa and having a relationship would be complicated.  I believed that I could be content and happy being single, fulfilling my calling while being single-minded and purposed.  The year 2012 was a significant year for me as I began to move out from under the cloud of grief and began to think through who Renita is.  Having gotten married at the young age of 21, to a man 14 years my senior, who happened to have strong opinions about things (no surprise to those of you who knew Bob!), I had a lot of figuring out to do of what I liked and who I am.  I had to look at many things again:  what type of food I like, what type of clothes I liked, since I bought a home during 2012 - what type of home furnishings I liked...and so on.  For the first 21 years of my life, I had my parents voice in my head.  The next 20 years had Bob's voice in my head.  Now it was just Renita.

I made many changes in 2012 - deciding to change organizations from Partners Worldwide to International Christian Ministries; changing from West Africa to East Africa; buying a house; and redefining myself.  In November I had a dream where I believed God revealed to me the reason for why Bob died the way he did - without any earthly explanation.  That seemed to be the final piece toward real peace that I needed to let go of the agony of Bob's death. 

As of February 2013, I told a few close friends that I was happier than I had been in years - even prior to Bob's death.  I had reached a deep level of joy, peace and contentment.  It felt great!  It is true that I struggled with loneliness in Kitale - being in a new country without knowing anyone.  But it was not a deep loneliness.  I knew it was just situational and would pass as I got to know people in Kenya.

However, with long evenings, no TV, and no one around in the house where I stay, I started checking in more regularly on Facebook to see what family and friends were up to.  I even began to develop some courage to post something every now and then.  These posting were always met with responses by people I knew and loved, so there was good reinforcement to check back.  I began to post some responses to posts here and there - not much, but a few times.  Enter Michael Thomson.

Michael is a member of my church - someone that I have known for some time, though not well at all; just as an acquaintance. He knew Bob better than he knew me - in fact he wrote a poem about Bob after his death.  I posted it on the blog shortly after Bob died - you can see it here.

In February of this year, Michael posted something on Facebook to which I responded.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  We began to communicate back and forth.  Once a week.  Then every few days.  Then every day.  I found myself experiencing feelings that I thought I wouldn't feel again. I was surprised, to say the least.  Michael was surprised as well.  Neither of us was looking to get into a relationship.  Both of us had committed to God to live into the life situation that we find ourselves in, learning to be content.  We certainly didn't expect this friendship, even as it developed, to turn into a relationship.  I was happy and content with Jesus as my husband.  My response to Jesus was, "Really?  I was committed to serving you as a single woman for the rest of my life.  I was content.  Now the 'cat is out of the bag' and I'm suddenly feeling alive again in ways that had been dead for years.  How do I get the cat back in the bag?"  I was no longer feeling content.  And I wasn't sure what to do about it.

Sharing this on the blog feels vulnerable.  But the truth is that this blog has witnessed my life over the past eight years - from Liberia, to Ghana, through the death of Bob and the ensuing grieving process, then to Kenya.  While sharing this feels vulnerable, it is no more vulnerable than what I have shared in the past.  Many of you have been faithful readers of the blog for many years, and I have appreciated your company on this journey thus far.  I feel it is only right to share this as well.

The tipping point for me where something switched from viewing Michael as potentially more than a friend came in an exchange in the beginning of April.  We were having a rather serious dialogue about friendship, Myers-Briggs types, and how we relate to people.  I've decided to share an excerpt of that exchange.

April 7
Renita Reed

People have perceptions of me based on what I do - and I'm just a normal person also trying to figure out how to make it - how to survive - some days doing it well, other days, not so much. I think at Madison Square Church, I've forgotten how to be real - and I wish I could get back to being real again.  I think when you wear this title of "missionary" and then "widow", it starts to take over who you are - and you start living into people's perception, even if it is only in your mind.

Michael Thomson
As for Madison...and not being real....I hope what I am going to say is real and not just my tired mind grasping at thin air...but how be you drop the titles of "missionary" and "widow" for "person" and / or "disciple". How be...if you are asked either before the church or in the church hall to talk about your life as a missionary, you let that slide or answer with...I can tell you what I am doing ...let me tell you what is happening and why I have made / am making some choices. Ask them about their "mission" be they nurses or janitors. As for "widow." will always be Bob's widow...but you are still Bob's friend....a sharer of some of Bob's memories and dreams. My point is...Bob is to you more than what makes you "widow." Perhaps even more importantly...and with NO diminutive intent towards Bob or what you had with Bob or what you have of Bob in your soul...but in Madison as in the world you are hardly only Bob's widow. You are Renita! You are Renita! You are Renita who has followed her own sense of where God was leading her into Africa after Bob...Renita who continues to care for and parent from afar and takes risks that make her friends quiver even if she doesn't. At Madison maybe because Bob was such the extrovert and a presence ... SOME may remember you mostly in his shadow. But I dare say, most or all would welcome Renita and her story since Bob in all its authenticity...I really do believe that. into your own place...and not merely as an echo of Bob at Madison. I know you do that in Africa...its your story "in the wind" now...
To be honest, this exchange scared me.  In some ways, I heard Bob's voice in this or at least a voice of encouragement such that I hadn't heard in a long, long time.  It scared me enough to contact some near and dear friends for advice and wisdom.  After debating whether to walk away from this new friendship a number of times out of fear, I was encouraged to explore it as possibly a gift from God.  Toward the end of April we had concluded that this was indeed heading toward a relationship.  At that time we emailed our pastors, who know us both very well, letting them know of our friendship and our desire to go on a date upon my return to Grand Rapids.  Both pastors responded so positively and enthusiastically - it was actually surprising and also affirming. During the worship portion of a church service while I was in Thailand in the beginning of May, I suddenly felt that it was time to take off my wedding rings.  I wept to take off the rings that I had been wearing for 23 years, that connected me still to Bob, and that had been a source of security since his death.  But I also knew that it was time.  Bob had told me that if he died before me, he would want me to marry again (I had told him the same).  I know that his deep love for me manifested itself for twenty years in wanting me to be happy.  I also know that now being in a relationship with another person does not negate or erase the love that I have for Bob, nor his ongoing presence in my life and my heart.

And so, there it is.  Michael and I have no idea where this is leading but have had many, many hours of deep discussion and prayer over this.  I happen to work in Africa.  Michael happens to work as an editor for Eerdman's in Grand Rapids.  Neither of us see our callings changing in the short term.  So this has become an act of faith for both of us.  We have seen a number of instances where it seemed God was the matchmaker and His hand involved in this.  And so, we trust Him to work out the details of living and working 7500 miles apart. 

When we posted our relationship status change on Facebook last week, we had so many nice responses from friends and loved ones.  Michael posted this in response, and I thought I would end this blog with his thought:

Thank you to our friends for your encouraging words. This moment is beyond wonderful! Renita and I truly feel blessed that our grief has been overtaken by joy. Not to say that grief disappears. Loss is loss. Yet in time of grief, in this relationship, we've found friendship, respect, and understanding. In this surprising but welcome moment in our lives, we've seen a work of God in bringing us together.

For you romantics out there, if you would like to read the poem that Michael wrote about me at the end of April, you may read it here.  And as you think of it, feel free to keep us in your prayers!