On October 31, 1999, I noticed a white car slowly pass my house. The car turned up the next street and circled back around in front of my house. It did this several times. An hour later, I heard the crunch of gravel and saw the white car in my driveway. I didn’t recognize the driver or the passenger in the front seat, but when the passenger in the back stepped out, I knew her. Rita was the oldest daughter of one of the lay ministers at our church and my sister-in-law. She knocked on the kitchen door and asked if she could use the bathroom. Her clothes reeked of pot and cigarettes. The door opened, and I stepped back. “Who’s your friends?” I asked. “I’ve not seen them before. Does your husband know you're hanging out with them?” “They’re just friends,” she said with a shrug, then disappeared down the narrow hall and into the door on the right. No sooner than the door closed, the shower turned on. That’s odd! I tip-toed down the hall to listen, and then tip-toed back to the table. The toilet flushed. The shower turned off. The door unlocked. She emerged. I listened to her footsteps and watched as she came down the hall. “Did Will go out of town for work like he planned to?” she asked, sliding her glasses back up her nose. I nodded, then said, “He'll be back Friday night.” “Well, thanks for letting me use your bathroom. Let me know if you need help while he’s gone. I can come over.” She took two steps toward the door, then stopped, and added, “What time are you meeting my mom to decorate the church for the Hallelujah Party tonight?” “I’m leaving in twenty minutes. I have to meet the guy with the jumpy houses at 2 o’clock, but I need to run by Lowe’s first." “Well, have fun,” she said as the door slammed behind her. I watched the white car back out of the driveway and thought nothing more of the visit, until Friday night, when my husband returned from out of town, and Brother Clay and Brother Aaron from the church came over for their weekly jam session. Brother Clay made his way down the grey steps to the music room in the basement, where the band’s name 39 Stripes was painted on the cinder block wall. “Hey…” he shouted up the steps, “did someone borrow my equipment?” I shook my head at my husband, and watched as he walked to the top of the basement steps. “No. It should be down there. Why?" “It’s gone! Everything’s gone—my bass—my amp—Aaron’s keyboard—your guitar—my—"
“You can’t be serious?” my husband said. He turned and eyeballed me as I took the stuffed shells out of the oven. “Babe, anyone been here while I was gone?” “Just Rita,” I said. Just Rita! The one who had served time for stealing a dead woman’s checks! It suddenly made sense—the white car circling my house, the shower turning on, Rita confirming that my husband went out of town and my plans to leave the house that afternoon to decorate the church for the harvest party. "It was Rita! she was acting strange...” My husband shook his head. “Call the police. We’ve been robbed!” While the four of us waited in the kitchen for the police, my husband called the pastor to tell him our house had been robbed and tell him about Rita’s bizarre behavior on Halloween, and how I suspected it was her. Clay, Aaron, and I listened to what was being said as it projected through the phone, and we could tell the pastor was mad—at us.
My husband’s volume matched the pastor’s. “What do you mean, come to your house tonight for an emergency meeting? It’s ten o’clock! You should be coming over here! It was my house that got robbed, not yours— My husband paced back and forth. “No, my wife already called the police…What do you mean, ‘Don’t file a police report’? I have to if we want to get our stuff back.”
Clay and Aaron’s brows disappeared into their bangs as they looked across the table at each other.
My husband white-knuckled the phone. He took a deep breath and clenched his teeth, and as he released it, he said, “Why are we being punished? Why are we being made out to be the bad guys?”
Through the phone, the pastor’s angry words filled the kitchen. “I forbid you from filing a police report and if the four of you don’t show up tonight for the meeting, you’ll be removed from your ministries and sat down for six months! Is that understood?”
As I heard these words, all I could think about was what happened to Jonah when he disobeyed. Ugh!
“You can’t do that!” my husband said, stomping his foot one time, then two. “We didn’t do anything wrong!”
“I can, and I will!” the pastor said firmly. “Your wife’s vindictive. She’s got a grudge against Rita. Rita deserves a second chance,” the pastor said loud enough for us to hear him.
“You can’t be serious! My wife doesn’t have a grudge against Rita. She’s given her plenty of second chances, the whole church has! If Rita didn’t do it, then she doesn’t have anything to worry about, does…she?”
“Brother Westgate, the ministers and I will be at the church in an hour and if the four of you aren’t there, there will be consequences—"
The call ended abruptly. There was silence, and then there were lights—bright flashing ones.
What do I tell the police?
I gulped and watched as the first officer came to the door and the second walked around the outside of the house with a flashlight.
The first officer stood on the linoleum with his pad of paper and pen out. His eyes bounced from the stuffed shells to the dinner rolls to the salad to the brownies to the stack of clean plates and the forks laid out neatly beside the folded napkins and then to me. Our Friday night breaking bread together had changed!
“Is there any way we can get our stuff back without filing a police report?” I asked the officer.
“No,” he said. His brow disappeared beneath the brim of the hat. “Don’t you want to file a report…you were robbed, weren’t you?”
“I-I-I wish we could. We just can’t. That’s all you need to know. You wouldn’t understand,” I said.
His brow dropped. “Do you know who did it?”
“I think so, but she’s on probation and I don’t want to be the one responsible for sending her back to jail. She's got a baby and she's married to—”
“What was stolen?” the officer asked.
“An acoustic guitar,” my husband said. “It belonged to my mother. She passed away last year on Halloween. I bought it for her on Mother’s Day ten years ago.”
“My bass and my amp—" Clay added.
The more we looked around, the larger the list grew, but none of that mattered, because none of us dared to file a report.
Needless to say, the band didn’t get back together, the items weren’t recovered, Rita wasn’t sorry, the pastor didn’t apologize, and because it happened at our house, we had to reimburse Clay and Aaron out-of-pocket for their stolen items.
Over the next five months, I was consumed with the injustice of it all. Every morning, Rita was the first thing on my mind, and every evening, she was the last thing on my mind. I would lay in bed for hours trying to think of ways to trick her into telling the truth—I wanted to be vindicated—I wanted the church to know I was a good person—I wanted Rita to admit she robbed me—I wanted her to apologize—I wanted my money back and all of the stuff, too, and every time I saw her, I remembered the offense, and hated her all the more.
The more included the Pandora’s Box that Rita opened into my past, where all the fear and shame and anger and injustices of my childhood which were stuffed way down deep inside in a manageable way, sprang forth like a Jack-in-the-box and suddenly I’d
Bitterness led to resentment that led to unforgiveness that led to me praying prayers like “Get her God,” “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord,” “Touch not mine anointed,” and “You reap what you sow.”
I was set on revenge. I was determined to prove I was right. I was cultivating the offense as if it were in a petri dish.
In the book Total Forgiveness, R.T. Kendall writes, “If our offender would put on sackcloth and ashes as a show of repentance, it would be much easier to forgive them.”
In the story of Jonah, the people of Nineveh put on sackcloth and ashes as an outward display of repentance. They even put it on their cattle! I wanted Rita to put on sackcloth and ashes and prance around the church!
Rita had become my enemy and like Jonah, I didn’t want God to show the enemy mercy and kindness—I was tired of seeing her play the role of the "wrongly accused" at church.
I wanted justice–
I wanted to get even–
I wanted her to suffer–
I wanted the church to be mad at her–
I wanted my brother-in-law to know I didn't make it up–
I wanted the pastor to know he had a hypocrite in the choir–
Pete Rollins said, “With trauma the past is never the past. The past is always present. You try to forget, but you remember it in your body. A trauma steps out of time. When you conquer the trauma, time starts up again.”
I was stuck.
My unwillingness to forgive Rita wasn’t just about my house being robbed. It was about the trauma I suffered as a child at the hands of my uncle, who robbed me of my innocence, and the pain I experienced from being rejected by the extended family, who seemingly sided with my abuser. This was really about that.
What is unforgiveness? you ask.
Unforgiveness is when you freeze-frame someone in their weakness. That's what I did. I had freeze-framed Rita in her weakness, and in doing so, I had freeze-framed myself.
So, the question for me became the question that God had for Jonah that was really a question for Israel,
Can I forgive my worst enemy?
I love how Paul begins Ephesians chapter 4:
I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
Four verses later, the apostle Paul adds, Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.
In these verses, Paul is talking about Jesus. He gave gifts. This takes me to the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus said,
"Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift."
“A refusal to forgive means that God stands back and lets you cope with your problems in your own strength, - R.T. Kendall.
After five sleepless months of obsessing over wanting her to confess and giving each other the stink eye at church, I knew what I needed to do, and that Sunday night, I signaled for Rita to come over and sit beside me during the song service. At first, she shook her head no, but soon made her way over.
“What do you want?” she asked with a huff as she sat down. The small of her back pressed into the hard pew.
I reached my arm around her and hugged her neck. "I forgive you! I release you of your burden,” I said.
She erupted into tears. “I’m sorry! I’m so sorry,” she cried. “My friends and I pawned it for pot.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I forgive you!”
Right there in the middle of the song service, we stood up together and began to sing, and when I lifted my hands toward heaven, something happened! I could feel the spirit of unforgiveness leave me. I was free.
I Am M.O.R.E., and so are you!