“Nothing keeps us so lonely as our secrets.”
On the Niagara escarpment, just past Stoney Creek Ontario, there is a lookout platform at the Devil’s Punch Bowl conservation area. From this point there is a breathtaking view of a 37 metre high waterfall over stratified rock that was said to have been formed at the end of the last ice age. If you enjoy the outdoors, I highly recommend that you check it out - it is a truly stunning sight to see. Also at this lookout point, there is a 10 metre high steel cross complete with 106 light bulbs that was erected in 1966 by a man named William Sinclair. His reason for establishing the cross? To bring a little more light to the world. And so it shines, and can be seen for miles on a dark night. At the foot of this cross is where my story begins...
The arches of my feet pierced with excruciating pain as I trudged up the snow-covered pathway - in ¾ inch heels. Oh yeah! There I was hiking up the Niagara Ridgeway in the middle of January sometime after 1 o’clock in the morning - in heels! Okay, fine, at that height they don’t technically warrant as heels - but it‘s not like they were hiking boots either! Even if they had been, by that point I was hardly consolable and I was tired of being polite. “Okay, this is ridiculous! I have to wake up early to sing at church in the morning - and I’m wearing a dress Cam! I’m wearing a dress - and heels - and it’s like -10 degrees out here! Can we please just turn around and go home? ” I heard my own pathetic beg. He took three more giant steps before he triumphantly announced. “Here we are! Just check out the view! Don‘t you think this was worth the trek up here?” he asked as he rubbed up and down my arms in attempt to keep them warm. I let the silence settle for about one minute before I answered. “Yup, terrific! Can we go now?” He took a deep breath and let out a long exaggerated sigh. “I’m sorry Babe. This wasn’t exactly like I planned. But I really wanted to bring you up here, for a special purpose… I wanted to ask you something” he began as he slowly lowered to one knee…
My heart lurched in my chest. No! No! This wasn’t happening! Not yet! I hadn’t had the chance to tell him! I… I hadn’t even tried to tell him. I was nearly twenty-one years old and we had been dating for exactly one year. He had surprised me by repeating our first date; the Toronto Boat show, dinner at a jazz club and now a midnight stop at the old cross off Centennial Parkway. Everything had indeed been lovely but in the months leading up to this night I had absolutely no inclination that we had gotten this serious. I hadn’t even considered the idea of marriage yet. I wasn’t ready for this decision. I wasn’t ready for honesty! And then suddenly before I could stop it, I was sub-consciously dragged back to the darkest, loneliest and most hideous part of my life. A part I had been desperately trying to leave behind…
“Babe… Did you hear me?” Cam said with a nervous chuckle. My thoughts raced back to the present, to the man on one knee, waiting for an answer. “I… I don’t know what to say.” I finally choked out. Which was of course true. Was I supposed to say “Yes, a thousand times, yes!” and just bury the darkness deep into my past? It was, after all, definitely in the past. I knew that a lot had changed in six months. But… I guess not enough. Otherwise I would have been able to tell him. So what then? Was I supposed to tell him the whole truth now, after he had gone to all these lengths to create a perfect moment? Would he understand? I had never wanted to hurt him, there was just something wrong with me on a very deep level. It went back as far as I could remember.
Despite the fact that I had grown up in a happy, healthy Christian home, I guess I had figured out at a young age that I was something of a cardinal sinner. I believed with all of my heart that I didn’t truly belong to the “club” that my family met with every Sunday because I wasn’t really that good. I don’t know when this belief started to take root. Maybe in the Sunday school room when I didn’t know all of the answers, or because I made faces at the girls who sat perfectly proper in their pretty little dresses. Or maybe because in our family, I was always the instigator; the “common denominator” in every argument. Or maybe it was just because of the fact that even when I tried my best to be good, I still fell short. As I got older, this belief only made room for more secrets and addictive behaviours. Maybe this wasn’t all that irregular to most girls my age but I lived in a world where make out scenes were fast-forwarded, the word “sex” was worse than the “F” bomb and little girls just didn’t have dirty thoughts. I didn’t stand a chance! I was already guilty. So I did the only thing I knew how, I pretended. I had always been a good pretender. I worked so hard to appear holy like everyone else, but inside I knew the truth and it bore heavy on my shoulders. I kept my secrets and I thought that was the best option but in effect no one knew how broken I was. At least not until I ran up a long list of boyfriends, hook-ups and flings. By then no one could help me anyways.
I gulped in the frosty night wind and forced myself to focus on the present. Cam was exactly the type of man that I needed. He challenged me to reach for higher goals and he stood by me while I stumbled towards them. He laughed when I barked (if you catch my drift) and he truly, absolutely loved God. In short he was exactly what I had always wanted… but I wasn’t what I wanted. I felt deeper in that dark, dank pit than I had ever felt. I desperately needed a way out. And here was my knight in shining armour, patiently waiting for an answer. I swallowed the lump in my throat. Maybe I would still tell him some day. But for now, he would be my resolution. I wasn’t doing anything differently, this was who I was, who I had always been. I just had issues that no one knew about. I would never cheat on him again… if I could manage that much. Surely I could manage that much. I looked him in the eye and I told him yes. I would marry him. I would continue to live this lie. But things would be better. I wouldn’t have to deal with it all alone anymore. “Yes” was definitely the right answer. He proudly placed a beautiful ring on my finger. I knew it should have been such a perfect moment to be remembered for the rest of our lives but for me it was stained with regret.
The following eight months flew by with wedding preparations and renovations on the condo we had purchased. For the most part I stumbled along with the plans. It was truly the busiest time of my life, which was good because it left little time for me to think. But every so often, on a restless night, I would find myself staring up at the ceiling and desperately wishing for a way out of it all. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to marry Cam. It was more fear that he wouldn’t want to marry me if he knew who I really was and what I had done. This fear choked the excitement right out of me. And as the countdown began the fear only intensified until eventually I didn’t want the celebration anymore, I didn’t want the flowers or the dress or the little white chapel… I just wanted to know - I needed to know that Cam loved me for who I really was, a twenty-one year old girl with much more baggage than he knew. And as my resolve settled, I knew that I really loved him. Perhaps I had never really understood love before then. But I loved him enough to let him know the truth even if it cost our future together. Even if it meant that all the gifts would have to be returned and that most everyone else who had been invited would find out why we had really called it off. Sadly, it wasn’t even until that moment, that I realized the position I had put him in. My secrecy, which had only ever been constructed to protect myself, would actually be wounding someone else deeply. It was time to tell him. But I needed some time alone with God first… I was certain I didn’t possess the wisdom or the strength to do this on my own. What I didn’t realize, was that God had been sitting there waiting for me. He planned to do a lot more than just grant me the wisdom and the strength to talk to Cam. God was about to change my life.
Over the next few weeks in the early hours of each morning I met with God. In the beginning I was afraid of Him. I put on my “Sunday best” attitude and still did a lot of pretending even though I knew He already knew everything. I’m sure I looked an awful lot like Adam and Eve as they tried to hide behind their fig leaves. But every single day God showed me one thing, and He showed me over and over again in a million different ways. He showed me that He loved me. That even with all of my faults, weaknesses and failures I was like a radiant, holy and beautiful bride to Him. And this love had absolutely nothing to do with my ability to be good or because of any good thing I had ever done in my entire lifetime. It had everything to do with Jesus. Of course, I had grown up in the church, I had head-knowledge of this since I was a kid. But for the first time in my life my heart and my head were speaking the same language. As each day grew into the next, I started to feel more comfortable to let Him into deeper parts of my soul. Like the skins of an onion, He was peeling off one layer at a time of the relational walls I had put up between us. I started to understand that His love for me and the fact that He lived inside of me was the only reason why I was even capable of doing anything good. I learned that freedom is found in relationship with Him and the relationship doesn’t come simply because one spends hours in devotion or prayer with Him. Degrees of relationship with God are no different than the degrees of relationship between humans. It comes from an understanding of how deeply you are accepted and loved.
Finally, one morning I felt God telling me that it was time to say good-bye to my constant companion. Darkness and light cannot co-exist. Except the darkness wasn’t the bad thing I had done. The darkness was my belief that I could make myself holy, whether by good deeds, lack of bad deeds or just a mask I tried to hide behind. I knew I had to go straight into the centre of my pain to be done with it. I had to come to the end of myself. I asked for forgiveness for the sin that encompasses all sin; having a god that was other than the true God. I had believed that I could somehow earn my own righteousness (even if that meant living with secrets and avoiding the truth.) I suddenly understood that it is my freedom from this sin of believing I can make myself holy, that enables me to live free of the sins that held me so tightly. In that moment of repentance, I knew I would never see that darkness again. Something else had filled my soul where that aching thirst had been. It was a joy that quenched every desire and filled every crevice. And the guilt was gone. There is no room for shame in the arms of grace. I was finally whole and assured of a love that would be more than enough for me for the rest of my life.
Later that day, with the wedding less than one month away I asked Cam to come over. That night, on my living room floor, I told him my entire story. I didn’t know what to expect. I only knew to trust that God would work everything out for His good. Cam didn’t say anything at first. He was like a stone, void of emotion. I could only imagine how difficult this was for him to hear, about a woman he thought he knew well. I finished my story and we just sat in silence for what seemed like an eternity. Finally he said he would need some time to deal with this and I said that would be okay. He took a deep breath, kissed me on the forehead and turned to leave. But not before I saw the pain and betrayal that I knew he felt… the pain I had put there.
He didn’t call the next day. I didn’t know what else to do except pray. I prayed for him unlike any time I had ever before. I reminded myself that God was my source of happiness. My world would not shatter if Cam decided he couldn’t accept my mistakes. I prayed for the healing of his heart and I waited. This went on for another four days. Not a single word was spoken between us. By this time I was starting to lose hope. I was starting to wonder how he would call off the wedding and how I would be able to tell everyone. I thought about everything that I knew about him. I knew that he had been stabbed in the back before by business partners and friends and that hurt ran deep. I knew that he and I were very different in the way we viewed other people. I easily embraced people. He did not trust others or let them in until they earned a place in his heart. I tried to guess my response if the roles had been reversed but of course, I had no idea how I would have reacted. It wasn’t my heart that had been broken.
By the fifth day I had prepared myself for the worst, as best as I knew how. He called me during his lunch break and said he would be by to pick me up when he was done work. For the first time since we started dating, I was ready when he arrived. He met me at the door with a coldness, a distance that I had not experienced from him before. He hardly said a word as we walked to his car. Normally I would have found something on the radio and put my feet up on the dash but that day I sat with my hands awkwardly still on my lap. Silence filled the car. I wanted to ask where we were going but I didn’t. Cam had grown up in the area and seemed to know all of the back roads to any destination. We were out in the country somewhere. So, I allowed myself to take in the scenery of the Niagara escarpment outside of my window.
When the car finally came to a stop I suddenly realized where we were. It was the same conservation area he had brought me to the night he had proposed. I hadn’t recognized it because our first visit had been at night in the dead of winter. Here, now, I sat momentarily transfixed at the kaleidoscope of nature and colours all around me; the rush of the waterfalls to my left and the density of the brush to my right. Directly ahead was the lookout point; a bird’s eye view of Burlington and Lake Ontario and looming large above it all, the old cross. Without thinking I broke the silence, “This is incredible. All I remember from that night was darkness and cold. How could I have missed this?” I asked.
“If I remember correctly, you were a little preoccupied with all your complaints about the despicable torture I was putting you through” he replied with a wry smile. I cringed at the memory. He held out his hand to help me over a large fallen tree and he didn’t let go when I had safely crossed over. My heart leapt at the simple gesture that had once been so easy between us.
He sighed and turned to face me. “I wish I could have talked to you earlier. I didn’t want to keep you waiting. I just… didn’t know what to say. Nothing you could have said that night would have surprised me more. I still don’t really know how to handle this.” He absently thumbed circles on the back of my hand as he tried to collect his thoughts. “Cam, I am so sorry. I wish more than anything that I was someone else; that I didn’t have to put you through this.” “ I don’t want anyone else.” He cut in. “…I don’t want anyone else,” slower this time and his eyes looked deep into mine. I still saw so much pain there. God, what could I do? What could I say? But it was he who spoke next, “I haven’t changed my mind about us. If the unconditional part needs to come before the vows, that’s fine. I’ll do whatever it takes.” He said with eyes searching mine. “I just can’t… I’m not very good at the forgiving part. I love you Steph. But I’m still so angry… it’s not going away. And I do trust you. I know it won’t happen again, but I still have all these thoughts coming at me all the time. I’m not strong enough to fight this on my own.” He looked away.
I just stood there, shocked. How on earth had this turned into his problem; his guilt? I was the one with the issues. But
Cam stared at me for a moment and then led me around to the lookout point so we could see the whole picture before us. “None of what you just said has been news to me… I’ve heard it all since I was a kid. But just now, it’s like my head and my heart were speaking the same language. It’s so easy. Why do we try to make it complicated?” He asked. “I don‘t know.” I responded. “Maybe because then we would deserve some of the credit?” Then we just looked at one another. Feeling overwhelmed and awkward I turned back to the lookout. “I still can’t believe I missed all of this that night, eight months ago. It’s so vibrant and alive… maybe my perspectives have changed in more ways than one. I was so focused on the negative before.” I turned to look at him but I was surprised to find that he wasn’t standing beside me anymore. Instead he was behind me and he was kneeling again on one knee. This time it really was perfect. There wasn’t a shadow of guilt to cloud the memory. It was just a moment of love, a moment of worship, a moment on bended knees. I suddenly knew then that redemption had been waiting for me all along and I found it there… at the foot of a cross.