cristine skelnik.

Life with God is like tending a garden. Water it and it grows and it gets green, vibrant. Don’t water it and it doesn’t get green and vibrant. Also, you can buy all the tools and clothes and magazines you want to make it look like you’re a gardener, but the less time you actually spend on your knees, the less your garden is a garden.

I hid under the dining room table as I overheard my mom’s desire for my dad to leave. She wanted a divorce. He begged her to stay but she insisted.

My mom was bored of the monotonous-but-comfortable lifestyle my dad worked so hard to provide. I, of course, didn’t recognize my mom’s interest in the freedom expressed by Helen Reddy’s I am Woman. My dad was one of the millions of men who fell victim to the roaring women’s liberation movement.

When he left, I was eight and determined to take care of my siblings because they needed me.

My family was never religious. We attended church services on the holidays with my grandparents and I performed in all the quaint pantomimes. That was all I knew about God — go to him when you wanted to make your life look better.

When my dad left, my world turned upside down and looking back it embittered me. He worked for IBM and our lifestyle reflected the status of his career. Without a regular stream of finances, my mom struggled to get by and lived on welfare checks that only lasted minutes before they were exchanged for cash — which was used for booze.

I have to get out of here, I remember thinking in my eight-year-old brain. But I wanted to be there for my younger siblings, someone had to be.

I owned a bible, my grandma always made sure we had one. Also, there was this strange, old lady in our neighborhood that would greet us kids at the bus stop everyday. Once a week, she’d invite us over to her place to act out bible stories — it was fun. Then, she’d have us clean everything up and she’d tell us about Jesus as we cleaned up.

At 14, I wrote a letter to the Manninghams begging them to let me live with them. And to my surprise, they said OK.

Leaving my siblings behind was hard, but necessary. And they could take care of themselves now — I did.

They were different. I knew they loved me but I didn’t trust them enough to see it. All I saw was the easiness of life — Fran made my bed, did my laundry, bought me clothes, made me breakfast, lunch and dinner, asked me about my school days. We ate meals together. I got baptized.

They enrolled me in a Christian school and the whole world came at me at once. It was new but it wasn’t — I was used to the world coming at me, I had egged it on ever since I can remember. But the Christian thing freaked me out a little.

So instead of experiencing it, I understood it. Learned all the right answers, played the right sports, acted right in church. But this wasn’t all bad. I didn’t have to survive anymore because everything was mine. A lunch-making, laundry-doing mom. A non work-a-holic dad.

As it was, I was happy. But I cried every night.

I hate you, I would rehearse as I imagined future interactions with my mom and dad. I thought it was my fault that my life was the way it was. In a way, I guess it was my fault. I sought the Manninghams out, but that wasn’t the way I really wanted things. I just wanted my family to be a good family.

I started begging God to kill me at an early age.

Kill me, just let me die. I want to die. There’s no way any one will ever accept me, I must not matter.

I had no sense of worth in the world. I was disposable. I always knew God was there, like some magical white-bearded man who wove a wand. But why would he allow such bad things to happen to my family? Why did he let my mom be so cruel to my dad? Why didn’t my dad fight harder for my mom? I didn’t understand the why.

God was like a garden sage who naggingly showed up on television saying things like, The lily’s ideal soil is loamy. No person other than a gardener can understand modish language like that. I became angrier.

In college I snapped. I didn’t want to pretend to be interested in God or church or family. I did a lot of dumb things and I didn’t care. But I slept with my unread bible under my pillow.

If I ‘give my life away’ to you, God, you’ll just leave or I’ll drive you away. I’m too … imperfect for you. 

It was in that snapping point in my life that I met Chris. It was also during my snapping point of life that I gave in to attending church once in a while. Both things changed my life for forever.

Chris and I fell madly in love with one another and decided to start living together. I invited him to church with me thinking it would likely end in a break-up because his relationship with the white steeple was as precarious as mine.

There’s no way he’s going to come with me and if he does, this will likely be the start of an end. Another relationship I helped ruin. Another person in my life gone.

So I suggested we go once just to be curious together. If we didn’t like it we could leave and never go back. It was a compromise we both felt comfortable waging.

But there was something in that church that we both felt almost immediately. After the service, the young pastor invited us out for dinner with his wife. We went and all I remember was feeling a warmth, like Chris and I were being hugged — it felt safe.

Four months later, Chris and I were married. We moved to Wayne, Illinois and I was invited to a women’s bible study. I went and somehow I ended up becoming closer to the Bible’s Jesus. Maybe it had something to do with my relationship with Pat, a mentor who was hard on me. She made me write the entire book of Romans, three times.

I wrote every single verse and it became engrained in my mind like nothing else in my life. Then she had me rewrite it but this time I was supposed to insert myself.

“What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for me, who can be against me? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give me all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died — more than that, who was raised to life — is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for me. … I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The training lasted six months and by the end, I found myself falling in love with the God I used to pray to let me die.

I don’t see the word ‘disposable.’ 

One day I was sitting on our home’s back deck and I realized something: God loves, accepts, adores, treasures, cherishes, me relentlessly. And to prove it, he sent Jesus, this wonderful liaison between the Father and humans, to die for all the sins I ever committed. And all the sins my mom ever committed. And my dad’s sins. And Chris’s sins. 

And … here’s the best part: there’s nothing I, or anyone, can do to change that. All is grace and from an eternal well it ever flows.

As I sat there with the sun beaming, birds living, garden growing, and with tears painlessly flowing out of my eyes, I quietly surrendered — knowing that the God of this universe would never betray me.

*Author’s note: Cristine lives with her husband, Chris, and two daughters, Cora and Catie in Mansfield, Ohio. Her daughter, Cora, lives with a disability so Cristine learned American Sign Language and became licensed. The couple call Ontario Christian Fellowship (OCF) their home church and serve various roles therein, but they serve in several ministries in and out of OCF, too, because, “We serve Jesus, not the church.”

Cristine wanted to include two life verses that “carried me through the episodes and hurls of life.” 

“So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” John 16:22 (NIV)

You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
 Trust in the Lord forever,
    for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the Rock eternal.” Isaiah 26:3-4 (NIV)


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