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The bird song is different in Northern California. A year ago, I was sitting on the couch in my Holland, Michigan, living room straining to hear if the robins had returned. I recognized the coos of mourning doves, and the caws of cardinals over the stream of traffic outside my front door, but no robins.

Today, I sit on that same couch in Oakland, California, east of the San Francisco Bay. Different living room, different street, a whole new reality: I’m disoriented as I hear the high pitched upward inflected call of a bird I am not familiar with. Though I hear him frequently, I have not yet been able to spot him in the tall tree he hides in. His call is not invitational, not even a flirtation. It’s a tease. He taunts, “You can hear me; you will never see me.”

In the last several months, I have discovered just how centering sounds are to me. I have a good ear. When I meet people, I remember their voices before their names or faces. Previously, I had just chalked this up as a quirky party trick. But being in a place where the sounds are continuously new is causing something like auditory vertigo. I cannot determine my soundscape and struggle to place myself geographically.

It’s been seven months since my husband, our cat Kate Spade, and I drove across the country, leaving the familiar laughs of friends, the “I love yous” of family, and even the classical hymnody of my church in Holland to take a call at Oakland City Church. I had lived in Holland for 31 years. When I moved there in the fall of 1991 to attend Hope College, it was with the assumption that Holland was only a rest stop in my life journey. The real destination was Chicago where I was to be an actor.

Here is the outline of the 1991 version of me: Introspective. Quiet. An artist. I had made my peace with financial instability and an untraditional life as a professional theatre artist. Having my own kids or even getting married would likely be cropped out of the margins of the very specific framed vision I had of my life. Inside my outline, my Christian identity was my backbone. I was a woman who loved God and loved the many opportunities to use my singing gifts in the church as a kid. I had always experienced church as a community of nurture and affirmation. I swallowed scripture and the mentoring of Sunday School teachers and choir directors whole, and it filled my belly full of desire to be an artist.  

But God’s picture for my life was not only different, it was hung in a completely different museum. At the end of my final year in college, I would fall in love and become pregnant. I was terrified, alone. The fullness of desire in my belly soured into morning sickness. God was that hidden, teasing bird in the tree. I recognized the sound of his voice, but the embodiment of who I thought God to be became completely disorienting, dizzying, disillusioning.

I balled up my outlined sketch and threw it in the garbage. In the span of the next two years I would get married, have one baby and then another. Life spun.

How strange that vertigo resides in the inner ear, the same place of the sounds that ground me. I strained to hear God’s voice, to make sense of this new life. The high pitched upward inflected call was always present, even if I still couldn’t see where God was. “You can hear me; you will never see me.” Though definitely not the plan I had in mind, I made the most of those next 20 years. I nurtured my family and even myself to the best of my ability. I made wonderful friendships. I created a life, a home, and sketched out a new identity. I loved the new life I created, but still . . . there were those moments when once the noise of the day quieted, I would find myself picking up the photo album of my life and thumbing back to the pages from many years ago to look for that introspective, quiet artist. Where was she?

It is said that in the second act of a play, the central character attempts to resolve a problem that arose in the first act, only to find themselves in an ever-worsening situation. Protagonists are unable to resolve their problems because they do not yet have the skills to deal with the forces that confront them. They must not only learn new skills but arrive at a higher awareness of who they are and what they are capable of in order to deal with their problems. This changes who they are. This is referred to as character development or a character arc.

My second act opened with the failure of my first marriage. I had spent many codependent years trying to solve the problem of my husband’s addiction and discerning a way to figure who I was called to be beyond a mother and wife in a context that questioned why a woman would ever want to be more than a mother and a wife. But I lacked the skills and strength to do any of it. I couldn’t rescue him. I couldn’t rescue myself. In Al-Anon you learn that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over but expecting different results. That was where I was. Insanity. The skills I had as a younger person were useless in convincing the man I loved to love himself and to love me . . . though I tried again and again and again.

On the heels of the exhaustion of those many agains, I made the most important decision of my life: I began seeing a therapist. That was 15 years ago. I often joke that while I am blessed with several friendships, the therapists I have had over the years are friends who have gone pro. I pay them to let me vomit words and feelings and truth all over them. My first therapist Deborah was the only person who knew the confusion, pain, and questions I carried every day. While I had been spending so much energy trying to listen to others and the world around me, Deborah taught me to listen to myself, to trust myself, and, as a result, to trust God. Our 50-minute sessions were so holy, I almost felt the need to remove my shoes when I entered her office.

There was a particularly challenging session with Deborah when I had confided just how chaotic my home life was. Deborah took my hands, looked into my eyes and said “Beth, it is time. You need to get out of your marriage.” She handed me the business card of an attorney.

There is so much I could say of this new season. Divorce is not for the faint of heart. The process, coupled with the months leading up to the decision, were, at times, horrific. All I had was that hidden voice of God—who I could hear but never see. For the first time, I decided the sound was enough. I didn’t need to know where it was or the body it belonged to—all I needed was to trust it was God and follow the sound.

This season was a deep, holy mystery; the likes of which I have not experienced before or since. Fidelity is a huge value of mine and I believe divorce is something that grieves God. Yet, here I was, believing God was calling me out of my marriage. Once I took a step into the chasm of divorce, I learned of a different kind of fidelity—God’s fidelity to me. God provided in profound and specific ways in that season, lavishing love upon me in the form of a new church. That community held me. On top of that, despite limited funds in my checking account, bills were miraculously paid, and new friendships emerged that held me in my pain and loneliness.

Also birthed in that season was the sketch of a new painting. A purpose, a weaving together of all my gifts, passions, and experiences came in the form of a call to ministry. The more honest I was about my pain and disorientation, the closer I sensed God was. I gradually let go of my pain, and in its place came purpose and energy. Though I couldn’t see God, I began to see myself and the circumstances of my life. I began the practice of journaling. It was an outlet, an expression that allowed me to piece together an understanding of what my past meant. The more I wrote, the more I saw that the care I received as a girl in church, the gifts of expression and art, the brokenness from the pain and disillusionment of my youth, all of it, were being pieced together to offer nurture, understanding, empathy, and hope for others.

Thanks to the encouragement of my pastor, I started seminary at the age of 39. This season brought many things including radical acceptance of my gifts and limitations, confidence and a strengthening voice, the willingness to take risks, a new husband who happens to be a theatre artist himself, healthy and strong adult children, and a first pastoral call that allowed me to learn, strengthen, and risk some more.

Eight years into that first pastoral call, I found myself at the edge of my own nest in a tree, listening to my own upward inflected call. Can I do this? Can I leave this small town? This place that somehow became a destination, became home, became safe? As I surveyed my strengthened wings, as the wind fluttered in my feathers, as I felt the presence of a God that confounded my senses, I answered the call with, “Yes. I was made for this.”

There is an aural act of grace in my life that is a gift. Once or twice a day the wind carries the sound of the Amtrak train horn two miles from Jack London Square to my home. The same F natural tone that greeted me when I heard the Amtrak train in Holland for 30 years at 6:49am and again at 10:31pm centers me, stops the spinning, here in Oakland. It is a sound that settles me. It is an invisible string that ties me to the past, ties me to my beloveds in Michigan, ties me to all that I don’t yet understand. As I hear it, my heart is filled with love for all I have known without seeing.

“You can hear me; you will never see me.” This is music to my ears.

Beth Carroll

Rev. Beth Carroll is the Senior Pastor of Oakland City Church in Oakland, California. She is a graduate of Western Theological Seminary and Hope College, both in Holland, Michigan.  She is married to Richard Perez, who is a theatre artist, and she has three kids - Josiah, Natalie, and a cat named Kate Spade.

11 Comments

  • Norma Hook says:

    Thanks Beth for sharing your story. The courage it takes to leave a marriage and the faithfulness of God during and after this decision are all stories I share with you. Blessings to you out there in California.

  • Gloria J McCanna says:

    So rich. Thank you.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Extraordinary beautiful, vulnerable and hopeful. Thank you for sharing your story.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    I remember you from your WTS days, Beth.
    And now to hear more of your journey. Satisfying.
    And the move from Hope to City Church. The call of God. To move forward with next steps. YES.
    Bless you. Bless your family. Your congregation in Oakland. With respect and gratitude. . . .John

  • Christopher Poest says:

    Thank you for this rich gift; for letting us see you.

  • Gary Nederveld says:

    Thank you for the sharing of your journey, it encourages all of us on a pilgrimage!

  • Kathryn Davelaar VanRees says:

    Oh my — what a gift to read these words, Beth.

  • Lydia Frens says:

    Tender indeed, Beth. Thank you for this gift.

  • Sara Van Doornik says:

    Beth,
    This is absolutely beautiful! Thank you!

  • Bill White says:

    What a gift you’ve given us here. Thank you for sharing the beauty and courage of your journey.

  • Fred Harrell says:

    Thank you Beth! Such a courageous journey and I’m so glad it brought you to CA.