It was in the top shelf of my closet when I noticed it. With a yelp I pulled it from behind the circular saw, still in the box, that my old in-laws had given me seven years earlier.
It was my camera. I lost it pretty much the day after I'd moved three years earlier, and the only reason I noticed it today was my annual fall cleaning. The film in the camera was pretty well used up. I left the mess in my apartment, and headed out to Wal-Mart, a bit giddy at the unseen pictures in my camera.
Digital cameras have taken so much of the joy away from taking pictures. I'd always felt like taking my film to get developed was like getting a present. You never knew what gem you'd turn up. These days, we look at the display and if we don't like it, we take it again. No mystery. Fewer disappointments, perhaps. But no fun, either.
It took me three hours, including a forgotten wallet, a Wal-Mart under renovation, and half of the afternoon spent in traffic before I was finally sitting in my car and opening the two packages. One roll of film had nothing but trees and stones and dirt roads. I had no idea what I'd been thinking while using that film.
I opened the other package, and I could feel my breath getting shorter as I flipped through the photos. They were pictures of my last trip with my ex-wife. The photos were like a walk through an old country lane I hadn't visited in a long time. We were smiling. Laughing together. Unaware that in less than a year our marriage would be over for good.
I carefully tucked the photos into a side pocket of my lap top and sat still for a moment. I stared out across the parking lot. I was parked in the corner of the lot of yet another new Wal-Mart, a massive thing the size of a shopping mall. I watched the people coming and going, the couples especially. Some even held hands. Others talked like most couples talked, as if there was no need to be grateful or thankful or especially courteous to the person next to you because it was no big deal.
"It is a big deal." I muttered.
I felt the emotion rising to my face, but I turned the car on and drove away before it could really do its work. It wasn't that I thought I'd ever get back together with my ex-wife, I think it was remembering how much we shared together, and the dream of growing old and being with someone, of having someone to wake up beside you every morning. Of being intimate. I don't mean sex, I mean intimacy. Of that emotional sharing where you can tell each other your deepest secrets and hold each other close.
I slowed down as the line of traffic in front of me thickened. The sun had begun to set, but it was still bright our, and beyond the trees along the road I could see the blue of the sky. I don't think that my ex-wife and I ever had that kind of intimacy. Back when I was married, I was scared of a lot of things, not the least of which was being honest and vulnerable. The thought of telling anyone my deepest fears was ludicrous. And even after our separation, when I thought we'd put things together for good, it seemed beyond me. I remember her saying to me so many times, "You have a good heart, Steve, and I know that one day you'll be the man God wants you to be."
That always used to upset me, of course, because it's the perfect back handed compliment. But even then, I would wonder if she was right. Would I be the man God intended me to be one day? Mostly I doubted it. And today, seeing those pictures again, I could feel the questions going through my mind again. Was I a better man now than I used to be? Had I grown at all? Or was I still the same selfish, judgmental man my ex-wife used to accuse me of being?
I turned on my off-ramp and headed home. I lingered on the stairwell, debated going for a walk, and decided to go upstairs instead. The thing about divorce is that the scars are always there. And today, I could hear my ex-wife's accusing tone, could see clearly the mistakes I'd made, and threaded through it all was the worry that I was no different than I had been.
It amazes me sometimes how much we believe what people tell us. We believe what our partners tell us especially, the people we love. And when they say things, even if in some way they are right, the damages last a long time. I'd always wondered at how women believed the men who abused them. How could they believe they weren't worthy of real love when the man they were with was a jerk? Parents did it too. I'd worked with enough kids to know. A lot of people spent their whole life trying to be what their parents told them they could never be.
When I first learned that God loved me unconditionally, I believed it. But I'm not sure I accepted it. Like many people, when I thought back to my own life, I wondered, after everything I'd heard, how that could possibly be true.
I shook my head and unlocked the apartment. I wasn't sure what I'd do with the photos. Because in so many ways my ex was right. I hadn't been a good husband. Especially that first year. And though I'd tried to do better, the divorce was proof that I hadn't done enough. That I hadn't been enough.
There are a million reasons not to believe in a loving Creator and most of them have to do with hurt and guilt. The truth was that although some of her words were right, God's words were right too. I was a new creation. Holy and loved and forgiven. Perfection was not part of my faith. Rather, it was weakness and imperfection that made Jesus the answer to all of my troubles, and the reason I considered Him not only my Hero, but the Son of God.
The truth is, I think, is that on many levels many Christians do feel guilty. Like me, they feel unworthy because they perceive the church to be a place where only perfect reside. But it isn't. The church is the place where the broken come together to encourage one another. The church is the place where God repairs the broken souls of His people. And it came to me that it doesn't matter if we have done things that we regret. We all have. But to live under the condemnation and false guilt of a perceived perfection is to deny everything Jesus stood for, and everything He did.
I moved to the kitchen to wash my hands. It was hard being divorced. Hard as much for the realization of my own failures as for the death of my dreams. But I knew it would pass. I knew it because I understood that God was in the forgiveness and redemption business, even if some people were in the guilt and condemnation business. And while I didn't like the pain of reminder, I knew that sometimes it was okay to cycle through our memories. To remind ourselves who we'd been and what we could be. And for all that I wanted to be someone else, I wondered if maybe it wasn't the end that mattered as much as the journey, and that it wasn't about the perfection of my life, but the redemption of my character. I wasn't sure that I had changed in the last four years, but the old photos had reminded me of not only what I'd lost, but what I hoped for. And for now, I would point myself in that direction, and let God do the rest.