I’m Gretchen Sexton, and this is how I’m living deeply.
Before my life fell apart, my ex-husband and I were in ministry- I was working in the high school ministry at CSPC, and he was an associate pastor. In 2003, the bottom fell out. Our 25-year marriage fell into a crisis I never saw coming. It led to separation and divorce. I went from being a stay-at-home mom, raising our two high school-aged kids… to this never-expected catastrophic event. My husband had been leading the young marrieds and officiating weddings, so people at church were looking at us like, ‘What?!’ It was humiliating. It seemed like everyone was assessing us, trying to figure out what the heck happened. So was I. For three months, I didn’t come to church. I was a wreck- I lost a tremendous amount of weight, and wanted my life to end, really. I had it out with God – ‘I know you hate divorce. Why’d you allow me to marry this person?’ I beat myself up- ‘Where did I fail? What did I do wrong along the way?’ I would lie in bed at night and think of all the things I wanted to say to my husband- I’d be writing letters in my head. It was all such negative stuff. Eventually, I felt God saying, ‘Alright, enough of that. All people make mistakes in how they live their lives. Go back to CSPC and be with your community.’ It was time for the negative thinking to be put to bed, and the only way to do it was to replace it. That meant a lot of nights listening to sermons -Tim Keller was big for me- reprogramming my thought process. His teaching helped me see that I’d known a lot ABOUT God but didn’t actually KNOW Him; not in the sense of really trusting Him when I was at the end of myself. Through that, God started a much-needed transformation, a transforming of my heart and soul- He loved me too much to leave me at that immature place where you think you’re ‘good.’ I’d led high school girls through a lot of Bible studies and gone through all the Beth Moore studies- I’d done all the right things in ministry. But I wasn’t ‘good’ (in the sense of being solid), because I didn’t have the anchoring roots needed to steady me if another storm came. God was using this to begin that process.
Slowly, things got better. CSPC members Ratni and Ebby Ebenezer lived across the street from me and literally took care of me and my teenagers, Nathan and Hannah. They were hands on in terms of feeding us amazing Indian food, but more importantly they were prayer warriors. For two years, they prayed with me for our marriage to be restored. God had other plans. My ex remarried, so our prayers shifted. As for me possibly remarrying, I’ve only seriously dated one person. He was a pilot and we dated off and on for about six years. (I met him through my new career as a flight attendant, which I began a year after the divorce. Launching into this new profession has played a significant role in my healing.) He’d grown up on the mission field in Nigeria. I loved his heart- he was deep and thoughtful, and we connected. He was quite a bit younger than me -by 17 years- but we sought the advice of people we respected because we knew the gap could cause issues. And it did. I’d never been loved or known like I was in that relationship -it was amazing- but it got to a point where he couldn’t pull the trigger for marriage. The age gap and his desire to have children were big obstacles, and we couldn’t overcome them. We had to let go -we loved each other, but it wasn’t a forever love, which gutted me. More sleepless nights, tears and questions came. I felt mad at God again- ‘You dangled this carrot in front of me. For what reason?’ I learned He still wanted me to be more rooted, because there was more coming in my life and there were going to be more opportunities and platforms for sharing my story; to be His flesh in this world. Looking back, I think this was all preparation. How can we be like Christ? Well, you can’t just be a unicorn- can’t just skip over the hard stuff. You have to suffer like He did to become like Him. God was teaching me this through the breakup, but also providing comfort. It had felt so good to be known and loved, and God was saying, ‘This is a picture of what I want for you, because I adore you. This marriage thing you’re wanting with this human man is everything I’m wanting for you and me… alone, without him.’
Just when life was finally settling into a calmer, more predictable rhythm -both kids were married, then came four grandsons- Nathan had a seizure. They found a brain tumor the size of a baseball in his left frontal lobe. The doctors gave him 15 months to live. It was glioblastoma- they removed it twice, but it kept growing back in the same spot. Nathan was only 31 when he died three years ago. He and his wife made a temporary move to Knoxville the last three months of his life so we could help take care of him and share his last days. All these trials have been hard, but I have peace about Nathan’s passing because I know where he is. His faith was so strong. He grasped at warp speed spiritual concepts which have taken me years to get my head around. He’s with the Lord now, but God’s still using his story. Filmmakers shot a documentary (https://vimeo.com/fightlikenate/documentary) about him. In fact, I just got a phone call from someone who’d seen it and said, ‘I never told you this, but seeing that documentary inspired me to get into rehab and get clean.’ The ripple effect has gone out in all sorts of ways like that. We’re here to be God’s representatives to the world, and that witness lives on for Nathan. Being God’s ambassadors involves pain and suffering, but there’s so much beauty too. I think of Nathan’s amazing determination- he ran the Boston Marathon in the middle of treatment; had five seizures but still finished! He also started painting with me during the last few months, producing a bunch of wonderful pieces of art, all of which sold. I love reflecting on the time spent with him creating beauty on paper; beauty we can still see and touch. I still paint often today, to the point where it’s become more than a hobby. Painting has become a lasting connection to Nathan, and a reminder that God has entrusted me with a really big story- He’s sustained me through it, giving grace for the realities of life. Yes, there are still questions. I so deeply wanted my son to live, but I’m not God, so who am I to call the shots? God is good, He knows what’s best for all of us, and He’s promised full restoration, and that’s my hope.
One takeaway from these trial-filled decades stands out to me in a major way: God shows up in community. You hear people say, ‘God is enough’, and that’s true, but He’s not enough if you hole yourself up in your bedroom. He’s enough because He works through everyday people like you and me, and they come alongside you and lift your arms. They carry you through these hard places. I’ve seen He’s enough because He’s so very present. There are so many times you just need someone to show up and sit with you. The Sunday school class (Joint Heirs) we attended and helped start as young marrieds continued to be the support I needed during all the hard days. I’m forever thankful for them. And that IS the Church- not the worship service, it’s this group of people with whom you have community. It worries me a bit to see younger people today who don’t have a tight knit community; they’re not really connected to anything, even if they attend worship services. We’re all in need of friends who’ll accompany you through all the trials of life. Weathering those storms with people who loved me and knew me meant everything. If you’re all by yourself, I can’t imagine how you’d cope. Family and counseling were great, but those wouldn’t have been enough. I wanted complete and healthy healing- I didn’t want to wallow, and my Christian community played a huge role in helping me get there. These days I’m still relying on other people, still flying, still painting, and I’ve written a book about my story that published last year (Go to flyingpretty.com if you’d like to learn more about the book). How the book came to be is another story in itself- a passenger on one of my flights knew my story, helped my son’s family, then personally saw to it that the book was published! Incredible! I hope people who’ve had really hard things can see how important community is- that’s one overarching point of the book. The other is this: I don’t know what the next day holds, but I know the end of the story and it’s amazing. My hope is in that and nothing else. If the story’s not like that now, it just means we’re not there yet, but Christ provides the only true fairy tale, and it does end well”