Laughing and full of anticipation, we climb into their silver minivan, pushing car seats around to make room for our two adult bodies. The hour ride to the restaurant is filled with the chatter of old friends catching up: how business is going, developmental stages of kids, relationships built and relationships severed.
And that’s when he says it, just kind of casually, talking about a young lady with whom we were all well acquainted:
“Yeah, her brother-in-law doesn’t trust her with men. Says she has the ‘spirit of a harlot.’”
The words hit me like a sucker punch.
But I swallow down the rage I want to spew in his face and calmly challenge, “What is that supposed to mean?”
He details deeds done and favors given. He tries to be discreet, but my experience fills in all the gaps that propriety leaves out. I don’t know if it is the sultry air in the van, or the hills and turns through which we keep weaving, or if it’s something else, but all of a sudden I’m shaking and about to puke.
We pull up to a stop light on the edge of town, and I have heard enough. With a voice a bit unsteadier than I’d like, thinking of this young lady and the newness of the path she has been trying to walk, I declare:
“If she has the ‘spirit of a harlot,’ then so do I.”
No one says anything for a minute. My husband throws me a glance, but I don’t look back at him. Our friends in the front seats shift uncomfortably. I sound like a caged animal with a wound re-opened and the shock of my words comes only because of the raw honesty they contain. I mean, what elder’s wife tosses out a statement like that with such passion? Don’t I know there are times and places for these kind of confessions, but for crying out loud, not on the way to Panera Bread?
Finally he answers, grace on his lips this time, “Yeah, well, I know what you mean. I don’t like it either.”
Looking back now, I think I probably could have said it a little more sweetly.
But the Gospel of a God who makes friends with sinners just tears through my lips sometimes with a violence I can hardly control. It’s hard to treat scandalous Grace glibly when it’s such a personal matter.
Because it has been many years and miles, but don’t let my well-manicured appearance fool you. Yes, I ride on the arm of a church leader. Yes, I have seven kids in tow when I go to Wal-Mart. Yes, we home-school and milk goats and make our own bread.
But those things define me less than where I’ve been.
I’ve known the coarse life of a harlot. The virginity lost in a swarthy public bathroom. The touch of strangers in places too intimate to mention. The rooms lit only by candles, full of palpable smoke, suggestive graffiti, and guitar riffs of Darkness.
Oh, how I remember the Darkness.
And I’ve known favors done for power and the backseats of many cars and church vans. I’ve carried illegal substances into youth group and taught my little sister the ropes of survival in the night. And if you asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, at the ripe old age of 13, I would have squinted my eyes as a challenge, raised my eyebrows, and haughtily said, “A prostitute.” And then watched your face to see the reaction.
This is the identity I have known, for I chose it.
I have no excuse, as many do, of absentee parents or early molestation. My upper-middle class life, in church every Sunday and Wednesday from the week after I was born, it taught me of a loving God and kissing Mama’s face goodnight and playing backyard catch with Dad. I made the grades at school and was a first draft pick in popularity kickball. I prayed a sinner’s prayer and signed a True Love Waits commitment card.
But what is it about the Darkness that draws us?
I didn’t know that a little taste of second-grade touching and a few rounds of spin-the-bottle would make me an addict so fast. I guess the Darknesss can do that. It calls to our own Darkness and makes promises in the name of pleasure and power.
What I didn’t know at 13 was that there was a greater Power. The power of Love.
I finally met Him at 16, already scarred and angry, sick of fighting and lying and hiding.
It was then that the One who had been with me in the bathroom and with me in the backseat and with me all the wild nights and empty mornings, it was then that His Love broke through.
And this harlot let down her hair and cried on His feet, the feet which bore the scars of her shame.
In the years after that, a slow healing took place.
Wounds grew together ever so gradually, sealing my self-infliction with time and the warmth of Love. Often, the bleeding ache of all I had done weighed heavily on me with guilt, perpetuated by haunting, illicit dreams.
And this, I believe, is where the young lady we discussed that evening in the minivan was.
Maybe it was my own past welling up inside me that compelled me to answer for this girl. Maybe it was the cheerleader within, rooting for the underdog.
Or maybe it was Jesus, the One who has a thing for the shady, broken and used.
Maybe it was the healing voice of Light dispelling Darkness.
Kelli Woodford hopes never to recover from the Mighty Mercy she has been shown. Although her life is now filled with more diapers than she’d like to count, she carves out to write about finding God in the simple and the frustrating at Chronicles of Grace (http://jasonandkelliwoodford.blogspot.com/).
[photo: TerryJohnston, Creative Commons]