My youngest had just been born, May 1, 1980, when I happened upon the religion page of the Seattle Times—devoted almost entirely to Bruce Larson, the new minister coming to University Presbyterian Church. “If ever I’m in real trouble,” I remember thinking, “I will call him.” Blake was not yet two when I picked up the phone. And so began a spiritual odyssey that has taken me places I would never have envisioned.
My first meeting with Bruce was, I think, that very same day. What I remember most were his eyes. Sky blue, and they bore into mine with a buoyant smile as he reached out to warmly shake my hand. I couldn’t look away. I was a deer caught in the headlights; for the first time in my life I was visible. It shocked me to the core. I think many women are raised so invisibly we don’t know what it means to be seen—until it happens. We stumble through the years in deep fog, identified and recognized through our casseroles and Christmas pageants, our sundry lists of service. But Bruce saw past all that—to me. Me. Whoever that was. And I held fast to his gaze, afraid to let go, for I recognized instantly that God had thrown me a lifeline.
Bruce listened to the most recent event of my life—the tip of an iceberg that had left me reeling. Prompted by my doctors, I’d finally seen my way clear to filing for divorce. The church I was attending, however, was disinterested in my story and told me, "Quite frankly, we have no more use for you." A stronger woman might have taken this in stride, gone around the iceberg and gotten on with the rest of her life, but the hull of my own life had been torn through by the subterranean unseen and I was sinking. My three children, ages 1, 3, and 6, would go down with me.
“Sometimes,” Bruce said sadly, “the church likes to bury her wounded.” He invited me to attend the church's annual retreat the following weekend, and arranged for me to bunk in with a public health nurse he thought I’d enjoy getting to know. To my surprise and initial resistance, Penny named me a battered woman, traumatized by emotional violence. In subsequent weeks, Ray Moore, an associate pastor Bruce introduced me to, named my religious abuse and opened new windows of theology that gave me an entirely different view of God. Rusty Palmer, a psychiatrist who taught single parenting classes at the church, named some of my abuse as psychological. Shortly afterward John Westfall arrived as a singles pastor and then Rich Hurst as his assistant—and through them I began to appreciate humor in the pain. And thus was born Bruce’s ministry in my life, anchor and hub to a vast network of informed people who each in their own way helped me chart the treacherous sea I was in, helping me navigate my way through the ice flows and around the iceberg that never went away.
A friend once said, “All divorce is the same. The details differ, but the stories are similar.” To some degree this is true. However, for some us the divorce never ends and so the story goes on. And on. As did mine. Bruce and the others often found themselves buffeted by the upheaval in my life—long after other shipwrecked women, arriving at U-Pres more dead than alive, healed and went on. I did make great strides, discovering courage and fortitude and enough talent to raise my children as a writer—learning to see what Bruce saw in me. But for me at least the real struggle never abated. My children’s father was like a rabid dog. He lived to make me suffer.
In an act of desperation I moved my children a hundred miles north. I continued to drive south every other Sunday, though, for I was dependent upon Bruce’s insight and wisdom. Just walking into the sanctuary at U-Pres was to be in a safe place. Christmas 1989 everything changed.
My children’s father brought to bear all the force he could muster. The stress was so severe my doctors were again concerned for my survival. My friend Barbara said, “There is something almost demonic about this guy, I wonder if we’re dealing with spiritual forces beyond our comprehension. What if Bruce gave you a spiritual divorce? You were married in the church but divorced in a court of law. What if U-Pres gave you a bill of divorcement, signed by Bruce?”
As soon as she said it, I knew it to be true. I went to Bruce and laid it all out. “I wish I’d thought of this myself,” he told me. “Let me talk to the other pastors, I’ll get back to you.”
Some of the other pastors were against the idea, but Bruce stuck to his guns. In my situation, he said, it was absolutely necessary. “But I need to talk with your ex-husband first. He deserves to be aware. Besides, I want to confront him. I want to ask him how, in God’s name, he’s been able to do what he does.”
My heart sank. “No, Bruce,” I said, “I will lose. You will abandon the truth of everything you know. Everyone does. The only exception is Ray.” Ray Moore, in fact, had initially been swayed. But he listened to me again, and brought my children’s father in for further discussion. “Did you— Did you— Did you—” he fired, rapidly raising one question after the other, trying to determine the veracity of what I was saying and leaving no time for manipulation, only the truth. Cornered, the man I was divorcing could only blurt out, “Yes, yes, yes.”
A thousand questions Ray could have asked, but the man I was divorcing heaved to his feet in a defiant stance of moral indignation, adjusted his fancy suit and summarily dismissed Ray and the entire congregation at U-Pres as heretics. “What God has put together, let no man put asunder,” he announced on his way out the door and with the same moral superiority in his voice and face I’d witnessed for ten sorry years. I held my breath, waiting to see what Ray would do. Would he, like everyone else, denounce me? Tell me I had to suck it up and drop the divorce proceedings? “I don’t know how you have survived,” he said, turning to look at me with such sadness I broke down.
Ray remained the only male to believe me after being exposed to my ex-husband’s machinations. This was a spiritual battle I had no confidence I could win. Bruce was susceptible as the next. But he was insistent. “I have to speak with him. The man calls himself a Christian, he needs to be held accountable. I intend to shame him. Denying his children support, medical help… He deserves to be confronted before facing God on judgment day.”
“Do not do this. I beg you. Do not do this to me.”
“Have you no faith in me?”
I stared into his eyes—and I knew this would be the last time I’d ever see him.
It was Christmas Eve when he called. “Hello, Brenda,” he said, “I’ve just had a nice talk with your husband.”
My knees went weak. Husband? I'd been divorced almost as long as I'd been married. I sat with a clumsy thud into a kitchen chair. My two boys were eating an early supper across the table from me. I don’t recall where my daughter was, perhaps last minute shopping, due home any minute. “We had a good visit, Brenda. He loves you and wants very much to put this family back together. I believe him. And as your pastor, I have to encourage you to do this.”
“I told you this would happen,” I managed to stammer. “I told you.”
“Yes, you did, but I do believe him.”
“Did you speak with Ray?”
“I don’t need to, I’m a romantic, Brenda. I believe in happy endings, and this can have a happy ending. He’s even willing to overlook the letter you sent.”
I involuntarily jerked up straight. “What letter?”
“That letter you wrote me last week.”
“I didn’t write you a letter.”
Nonetheless, he was convinced I’d written a litigious, slanderous letter, a crazy letter, demanding and whiny, chock full of misperceived insults, a letter he apparently shared with my ex-husband. My head was reeling.
“Was it hand-written?” I asked, thinking of my file where I kept copies of all my correspondence with Bruce. Perhaps if I’d hand-written something I might have failed to make a copy. But no, it was computer generated—and I knew I did not have copy of such a letter in my file, or on my hard drive.
“I signed it?” I asked.
“Is it my signature?”
He couldn’t recall what my signature was supposed to look like.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d send me a copy,” I told him, but to protect me, he said, he’d destroyed it. It was too damning, too vociferous. Besides, he didn’t want such a vile letter in his office. He had to get rid of it.
My mother has her theories as to who sent that letter. I can’t go there. How can I? Such knowledge would defeat me. I can’t live knowing someone can be that malicious, that treacherous. Twenty years later I still can't go there..
“It’s Christmas Eve,” said Bruce on the phone. “I just wanted to call before I went home. Think about what I said. You need to put this back together. You owe it to yourself, to your children. He loves you, he wants to make everything right.”
I think I just hung up. I had to stand to reach the phone, and what I remember is a sensation of numbness, like someone could cut my heart out and I wouldn’t feel a thing. But my head was spinning. The world tipping, me sliding. I looked at my boys, nine and eleven. Their faces were ashen.
“Bruce says your father loves me,” I told them. “Tell me the truth. I need to know the truth. Does he?”
They looked at each other, they looked at me.
“Phillip,” I told the oldest. “I need to know the truth. Tell me the truth.”
Again they looked at each other. Blake, nine, nodded. Phil, eleven, turned back to me, his ashen face going completely white. “Mum, Dad wants you dead.”
This was truth I recognized—though the bluntness of it startled me. Out of the mouth of babes… But my sons’ father could kill me with his bare hands and it would be nothing compared to Bruce’s betrayal. The church has a way of burying her wounded.
I don’t recall what I’d fixed for supper—soup, chili, ravioli. It was in a pot. I do remember that. And I remember watching my tears drip into it as I stirred. Now what? I asked God. I’d been cut off from my church, from Bruce, from the entire staff. And this, I knew, was exactly what my ex-husband had intended to do. Take away my only spiritual haven. I was on my own.
Am I not enough? God seemed to ask. Next thing I knew I was slamming my head against the nearby cupboard. I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t stop until the physical pain eclipsed the pain within.
A few years later, HarperCollins published my book Taming the Dragons. I’d relied heavily on some of Bruce’s many books to support my thesis that we are never alone in conflict and asked my editor to send it to him, then at the Crystal Cathedral in California, for an endorsement. I wanted Bruce to know I’d not gone back to my marriage but had figured a way to extract my own self from spiritual oppression. Secretly, I’d hoped he would write and tell me he was sorry.
He did give me an endorsement—“Wilbee, a gifted writer and a keen observer of life, has written a book that could not be more timely for women—as well as men.” That he respected me was clear. That he valued what I had to say—not only for women but for men as well—was also clear. I wasn’t surprised by his validation. After all, he was the first to see this in me, and to call it forth from my battered soul like Jesus called on Lazarus to rise from death. But Bruce didn’t contact me. I realized then that he simply didn’t know the depth of his betrayal.
For nearly twenty years, though, the pain remained. And then last week, out of the blue, John Westfall found me. "Hi,” he wrote via Facebook, “Eileen and I were wondering how you were, and I did a quick search….” I hadn’t heard from John since Taming the Dragons was released. I read on his Facebook wall that he was preparing for Bruce Larson’s memorial service. I shot back a message, distressed to hear of Bruce’s death. I think my heart actually hurt.
The next morning John informed me that Bruce had actually died just before Christmas, but the service was to be at two that afternoon, at U-Pres—a three-hour trip for me. Rich Hurst would be there, he wrote, and Keith Miller. “Bruce, Rich, and Keith together,” he said, “wrote most of the books out there, you wrote the rest!” Untrue, but I was pleased to learn that Rich had been writing; he had so much to say. Like, God does not call us to trust. He calls us to love. Trust must be earned. John, too, was a writer. We’d shared the same editor at Harper. No time to think about this, though. It was already 10:45. Rain was coming down in a torrential downpour and rumors were out that parts of I-5 were closed due to flooding. But I had to try…I had to say goodbye…I had to find a way to let go of my pain. I had make peace with a man I loved and to whom I owed so much despite our difference of opinion.
I arrived just as the opening trombone number was under way and I slipped into the second to last pew. The sanctuary was packed—easily 3,000 people. I slid in next to a stranger, home again. How could I forget? How could I forget the solace and sanctuary of this place? The swell of the organ all but lifting us off our feet? The serenity of the stained glass windows despite the drumming rain on the other side? How could I forget the healing presence of Bruce? For he was here, his tremendous love bringing him back to say goodbye to us all—as us to him. In his presence, then, and for the first time in twenty years, I felt safe—for this is the legacy of Bruce. Safety at the cross, not condemnation.
The old vanguard was all there, all his old writing comrades, his family, John Westfall, Rich Hurst, Ray Moore, men who’d stood in the gap when I needed them most. Lloyd Olgivie, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate and longtime friend of Bruce’s, had us alternately guffawing and fighting tears. And when Lloyd suggested that Bruce was with us, in this sanctuary, I was glad to know someone else, of much greater stature, understood this to be true.
I was seventeen when I suffered a near death experience. By now most people know about the tunnel and Light, meeting the Divine, conversations without words, seeing without the traditional use of the eyes, hearing without sound waves being absorbed by bone. For years, though, I remained silent, fearful lest someone think me crazy. I could remain silent still, a quiet witness, but I remember Bruce's admonition to "live as if you weren't afraid."
And so I say that I sat at his memorial service in the second to last pew and “watched” him move with the spirit of God from person to person, in no particular order, reaching out to those who sensed him, smiling at those who could not.
When I was seventeen I could not explain being outside my body, looking down from somewhere over my uncle's car, seeing myself in the back seat. I couldn’t explain seeing through metal and upholstery to my foot, firmly stuck under the front seat. I couldn’t explain hearing the struggle to free me, my aunt finally saying, “Her foot is stuck!” Nor can I explain how, at fifty-six, nearly forty years later, I could "see" or "hear" Bruce, or "know" he was sorry. But, as he said, I am a keen observer of life. And knowing he was sorry, I could forgive and the pain mysteriously vanished.
I waited around at the reception afterward long enough to find and speak with John and Eileen Westfall, Ray Moore, Rich and Kim Hurst. I was worried about I-5 closing, going northbound, and the service, thanks to Lloyd Olgivie, had gone on for a couple of hours. I gave each a hug, thanked Eileen for thinking of me, urging John to find me. “It’s so weird,” John said, “we got to thinking of you and Eileen said, ‘See if you can find her.’” It was a miracle I was here, a miracle I could think of Bruce and not hurt.
I have to admit, of late I’ve been stuck. Three months after my near death experience, when I was seventeen, my parents in desperation had sent me to live with family friends in Arizona, to see if my health would improve. My mother put me under the medical care of a Christian doctor who took advantage of my vulnerability. Predictably, I went on to marry badly and, two years ago, I started to revisit this, trying to decipher meaning—if possible—in my plummet from the very gates of heaven to the metaphorical gates of hell in the short space of time. Questions have been plaguing me: Who would I be if...?
Questions without answers and so I go from one to another and back again. No forward movement. Stuck.
This Christmas Eve, 2008, my youngest son, now twenty-eight, commented on something he’d read from Anne Lamott: “Forgiveness is letting go of the desire for a different past.” So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to integrate this with my endless cycling. Driving home in rainfall so severe my wipers were hard pressed even on high, this concept of forgiveness and a fifth question came to mind: Who would I be if it were not for Bruce?
This is a question with answers; the list, actually, is endless. For everything I am and have and understand is deeply rooted in Bruce and his teaching, and in his ability to perceive the best in all of us and call it forth, even when we cannot see it for ourselves. Even when it’s been clouded by circumstance and abuse.
The obvious clicked into focus even as the rain washed over my windshield. I am—was and will be—the person Bruce recognized and named. I’m a friend, a scholar, a complex thinker, a gifted writer and keen observer of life with things to say that cannot be more timely for women—as well as men. Stuck? Events are immaterial in defining us. We are who we’ve been created to be. And if we’re lucky, we have someone like Bruce to help us see it.
He did well by me. I miss him and love him, and I count myself divinely blessed. For truly, think about this. Who would I be if not for him?