She was my roommate for six weeks of missionary training. And she was different than everyone else.
For starters, she was in her seventies. She owned a peach orchard in Georgia and was leaving children and grandchildren behind to go and minister to AIDS patients half a world away. At twenty-two with nothing but myself to think about, I didn’t have a whole lot in common with her apart from knowing Jesus, but that was enough for us to form a solid friendship that summer.
Enough so that I felt free to tease her, as she entertained a gentleman caller that first weekend we were there. (And nearly every weekend that summer.) He’d drive all the way from Georgia, get a room in the town next to our training facility, and arrive on our doorstep in time to pick her up in the morning, take her anywhere she needed/wanted to go, and drop her off in the evening with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Miss Ann,” I told her, grinning (and feeling a little befuddled that her love life at seventy-two was more exciting than mine was at twenty-two), “that man is in love with you. Are you really going to leave him behind to go to Africa?”
“Oh, honey,” she told me in her sweet Southern accent. “That’s not a man. That’s my ex-husband.”
She went on to tell me how they’d married young, had babies, invested together, worked alongside one another, watched their family grow up, seen their children off into the world, and —
“And then I divorced him,” she said. “I’d spent all those years with him going from one mistress to the next. He didn’t change. So I was done. Have been done for thirty years now.”
Yet there they were. Amicable enough, obviously, to go to such lengths to spend time together. Connected enough that they called one another throughout the week. Close enough that she was leaving everything she had stateside in his hands.
One morning when he came by and took her away again, another one of the girls in our apartment looked at me and said, “Who is that man?”
“Her ex-husband,” I said.
And she looked at the other two girls, her eyes wide, and said, “Well, if they’re that close and get along that well, why didn’t she just stay married to him?!”
I didn’t say anything even though I’d wondered the same thing myself. We were all twenty-two and single, and I figured (in a rare moment of wisdom for a naïve, young me) that I wasn’t in Miss Ann’s shoes, hadn’t experienced what she had, and couldn’t speak to what she should or shouldn’t do now. Sure, we all had biblical answers for what might be best, for what would honor God, for what we knew of Scripture… but we couldn’t ignore the people and the situations involved in our rush to affirm those truths. And we couldn’t ignore our own ignorance regarding things like adultery and infidelity (and even marriage!) and our own inability to speak to the situation with any real understanding or compassion.
“Seems like an easy answer to me!,” another one of the girls piped up.
True enough, but… well, the situation wasn’t easy. Because people were involved. Hurt feelings were involved. Broken trust was involved. Years of life that we had no real understanding of — ALL of it was involved. Scripture was clear, but applying it to life and its tough situations needed to be done with compassion, with sincerity, and with delicacy.
No easy thing.
I’ve thought about this conversation so often as we’ve been in ministry. Life isn’t pretty all the time. And people deal with hard things, much harder than I can fathom, and it’s easy to want to give Scriptural answers without empathy sometimes. I mean, it’s always right and good to give Scriptural answers because Scripture is all we have. But we have to remember that people are hurting, people are walking through heartache, and every person’s situation is unique, different, and intensely personal. I think we can become somewhat flippant, like those girls in that missionary training facility didn’t know they were being, when we just offer up the right answer without truly trying to see and understand the people who need the answers.
I saw Miss Ann on the mission field at a regional meeting in Zimbabwe, six months into our lives in Africa. After we’d hugged and caught up on everything one night at dinner, I asked about her ex-husband, how he was doing, and how life was for him back on that peach orchard.
She talked about how they missed each other. How he was spending a whole lot of money on international calls. How their kids had bought him a computer and taught him how to use email so he could write her, too. How he was taking care of the orchard he’d lost in the divorce settlement. (He was a good man, y’all.) How he was still her best friend. How it’s hard to love someone, even with difficult times, for so long without him becoming so much a part of you.
“You ever think you’ll remarry him one day?,” I asked, seeing the tenderness in her eyes as she talked about this man who had hurt her for so long, for so many years.
And she smiled at this and said, “Well, you never know, right?”
I thought about the answers that could have been given, about how God hates divorce, how God can change (and had changed) that cheating man of hers, how God could heal the hurt and distrust she’d been carrying for years, and how God would be honored through the restoration of that covenant they made so many years ago.
But she knew all of this. Knew it better than me, probably, along with all the other baggage that had come with hardship.
So, I simply nodded and said, “You never know.”
Praying that as we lead people to Christ and the answers He has for them, we’d really see them as He sees them, treating each one as personally as He does…