By Angie Crea O'Neal

Minding the Gap

I don’t remember many details from that day except that I had finished the last chapter of my dissertation the week before, leaving only the conclusion to draft over the summer. I was six months pregnant with my second daughter and had miraculously finished writing despite the travails of stay-at-home mothering, months of morning sickness, and planning another move. On March 11, 2007, we were only hours away from relocating to Las Vegas, our third corporate move in less than five years. My eldest was just shy of three and in the throes of toddlerhood. Marin’s name is Latin for the sea, and she is every bit as unpredictable as a large body of water. A hurricane of energy. When she would collapse in the middle of Scottsdale Fashion Square in a fit of rebellion, fists clenched and eyes blazing, I recall staving off my own meltdown by coolly reciting a litany of GRE adjectives to describe her: Contumacious. Obstreperous. Recalcitrant. R-e-f-r-a-c-t-o-r-y. Memories that vivid won’t fade.

I also remember going to church that March morning, together as a family for what would be the last time. In our twelve years of marriage, my husband always held my hand during prayer. Always. He didn’t that Sunday, and when I reached for his I felt only a lifeless grasp.

Our divorce was final exactly a year later.

A familiar expression, “mind the gap,” lines the walls of London subway stations, warning people of a potential hazard: the gap between the subway platform and the train. By minding the gap, passengers watch their step and are careful to stay on level ground, aware of the risks involved in something as routine as a morning commute. In the wake of a divorce I didn’t choose and single motherhood against my will, the phrase has assumed new meaning. The gap for me has become the figurative space between expectations and reality, for our desires rarely align perfectly with the life we’re given. Sometimes, the disparity is so great that we go down. The gap that opens up is filled with doubt, confusion, and fear, and from the depths of its cracks and fissures our future seems undone.

I fell into the gap when my husband left. Rejection that violent should kill you on the spot like a bullet to the brain or a bomb that blows you to smithereens. I remember thinking that one shouldn’t have to keep living after something so horrific, getting up and limping through life: hurt, beyond hope, barely breathing, but alive and conscious of everything that’s missing.

And yet, when the gap widened and everything fell apart, God showed up in a supernatural way. I poured out my heart to him, and he answered. Despite the gap, I managed miracles left and right: completing my dissertation (narrowly missing labor), giving birth, defending, graduating, living under the roof of friends and family for over a year, landing my first tenure-track job, buying a house of my own, and beginning life anew with my girls. Through the touch of others, God rescued me from the deepest pit, showed me unmerited compassion, and blessed me beyond measure. He transformed a year of devastating loss into an “annus mirabilis,” a year of wonders. At the end of the ordeal, I felt surprisingly unscathed. God brought beauty from the ashes of my failed marriage, giving me, as Isaiah 61:3 promises, “joy instead of mourning, praise instead of despair.”

So, it was no surprise to me when God did big things again and far sooner than I expected. My prayers for the future had always hinged on the hope that it would include another relationship. And I knew that, next time around, anyone in my life would have to love the Lord as passionately as I did. I was prepared to be alone with my girls for as long as the Lord willed, but I was quietly waiting.

And then I met him.

One of my favorite hymns, “Blessed Assurance,” speaks clearly of God’s sufficiency in a life of gaps: “Perfect submission, all is at rest, I in my Savior am happy and blest: Watching and waiting, looking above, Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.” For a time, I was lost in a relationship that seemed ordained and destined for marriage. Beautiful in its simplicity, it held the sweet promise of a second chance and a broken family made new. With him, life was easy for the first time in a long time—I no longer had to concentrate on breathing. I floated through days offering stolen glances, loving attention, and thoughtful gestures. Like a balm, this man filled in the gap so well that I became unconscious of time. The roundness of a lifetime was captured in a few short months. It was, I thought, yet another miracle orchestrated by a compassionate and imaginative God.

Only, the story has ended with the Lord peeling and prying my white-knuckled fingers away from a dream once again. God whispered “no” and with a toddler’s tenacious grasp on what she should not have, I went down hard. Again. The future I had glimpsed was abruptly snatched away, and the preceding months seemed pointless and cruel. I questioned my worth. Something had to be wrong with me, and when confronted with that awful possibility, I desperately wanted to go home. In sensing the impact of the gap even more acutely than I did during my divorce, I craved a lasting fullness that would fill the void. To be completely loved without fear of loss or rejection. I longed for Jesus in a profoundly real way, wanting to bury my head in his side and burrow in his arms as if losing myself in a multitude of warm blankets.

Living in the gap so soon again has left me raw and inside-out. The pain is a knot that I try to work out with nimble fingers, but it ignores my anguished efforts and loosens only the slightest bit. So, I simply return to the words “blessed assurance” and cling to the promise they offer as if it were a life-preserver: that, in perfect submission to His plan, we will find the love we so desire, a love that will never leave us. As Alister McGrath elegantly describes in The Mystery of the Cross,

In effect we are forced to turn our eyes from contemplation of where we would like to see God revealed, and to turn them instead upon a place which is not of our own choosing, but which is given to us. As the history of human thought demonstrates, we like to find God in the beauty of nature, in the brilliance of an inspired human work of art or in the depths of our own being—and instead, we must recognize that the sole authorized symbol of the Christian faith is a scene of dereliction and carnage.

This world promises everything but delivers precious little. Life often leaves us empty, as our intrinsic desire for connection is so often met with boundaries, walls, and casual indifference. God created us for intimacy, and yet the world and its people remain largely impenetrable. When we let down our defenses to dissolve boundaries between our self and others, we assume great risk. Yet, paradoxically, this pain leads us ever so closer to the only thing that will heal us. When we encounter God’s love made available by the carnage of the cross, we experience the world more intensely while simultaneously leaving it behind, little by little. Every time our heart is broken, every time we feel resistance or rejection, every loss, every step into the gap, our soul cries out for something more.

But unlike an angry child, we thank God for the privilege of being disciplined, and we let go of our control. While excruciating, the process is also sanctifying, correcting the distortions of a fallen world and preparing us for something much bigger than our pain. Redemption isn’t glamorous, and it rarely happens by vision or epiphany. Redemption is found in the gaps where we feel blind and helpless: in the daily, banal routine of putting one foot in front of the other while trusting in a future we can neither feel nor see. God meets us there. As Isaiah 40:4 tells us: “every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low.”

I’ve been reminded, firmly yet lovingly, that I am not the author of my narrative. If I were, poetic justice would have surely prevailed by now. The real author of my narrative has more imagination and artistic genius than I can possibly fathom. In the shadow of my suffering, he is weaving something intricate and beautiful.

At times, my soul still buckles under the weight of all that my girls and I have lost — things so close to the marrow of my bones that I didn’t appreciate them until they were gone. I ache for them now.

But, God gently reminds me that the path I walk exists only by his design. Like a relentless lover, he pursues me by revealing the wonderful continuity that runs eternal through my life. Nothing is disparate and nothing is wasted. He takes the patchwork quality of any given day — a reading of Annie Dillard, a rare quiet moment with my daughter, a five-year old journal entry, a phone call from a new friend, an unexpected message from an old one — and reveals the connection that pulsates undetected and just beneath the surface, for His hand is in every detail.

His purpose might still be veiled, but he compensates by filling me up with the knowledge that there is a plan to which every facet of my life is bound. All I have to do, despite the crushing disappointment of the last two years, is get up and continue the daily commute no matter how I feel. Choosing to walk, give, love, pray, and believe.

He leads me to the tip of the thread lost invisible on the spool. I pull and quietly resume the work, finding my greatest solace in the simplest acts of daily necessity: pouring a cup of strong coffee, setting a table for three, wiping red noses, crafting the perfect ponytail. All the while, minding the gap.

“Perfect submission, all is at rest, I in my Savior am happy and blest: Watching and waiting, looking above, Filled with His goodness lost in His love. This is my story, this is my song. Praising my Savior all the day long.”

Find other articles from this series at Marcia's Picks.

About the Author

Angie Crea O’Neal is Assistant Professor of English at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia, specializing in eighteenth and nineteenth century British literature. She teaches writing and all facets of British literature, but her favorite literary subjects are the Romantic poets and Jane Austen. Angie received her PhD from Arizona State University in 2007. She lives with her girls, Marin and Maeve, and her aging dog, Lucy.

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