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186 || Forgiving the Unforgivable

glowing, warm day in early October of 2006 shattered my innocence, destroyed my dreams, and devastated the lives of many in my community. Loss and pain marked that day. But evil did not win. That day was the start of something revolutionary. My normal life had ended, but my life was not over. God had other plans. The words of Scripture are indeed true, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah. 55:9). God has done much since that October day.

Simple Country Life

I grew up in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I enjoyed the idyllic atmosphere of farm country — the beauty of rolling hills and meticulously planted fields. Many of our neighbors were Amish, and we purchased produce from their roadside stands from spring through fall. My family attended a small, white church with stained glass windows in our community. I have wonderful memories of that place and the love I felt. It was a love that became the foundation of my life. Just as the sun poured through the multicolored glass every new morning, Jesus touched my heart and awakened me to the wonder of a personal relationship with Him.

Growing up, I was a shy girl. My lack of self-confidence often tempered my desire to run wildly after my dreams. I spent countless afternoons swinging in our backyard, dreaming of my future. I looked forward to the day when I would be a wife and mom.

When I was 17, I met Charlie and fell in love. My friends worked on college plans while I prepared for my wedding. We married a few months after my high school graduation, and soon, much to our delight, we found out we were going to have a baby. I viewed my life with wide-eyed wonder — this was everything I had dreamed.

However, my fairytale was short-lived. I began experiencing complications in the pregnancy, and our daughter Elise was born prematurely at just 26 weeks. Her lungs were too small for life outside the womb. For 20 gentle minutes we cradled her in our arms, trying to comprehend living without her. Our hearts were broken. Grief came in al-consuming waves and we felt helpless.

Surrendering to God’s Plan 

For me, the following season was one of struggling to find contentment with my life. There wasn’t a quick fix. I longed to see God. I knew He was still there, but I couldn’t find Him. I only wanted to trust God if I could choose the outcome. I knew that He loved me and would work all things for good — but I needed to believe it.

God asked me to let go of my plans, to open my hand and release it all and then take His. I had to learn how to truly trust in the promises He spoke and allow Him to heal the broken places of my heart, even when I couldn’t see or feel Him. I started to understand that relationship with God is living and breathing. He offered an exchange as I chose to exhale the loss, the ache. The heaviness that was inside me became the space where I could breathe Him in. Little by little, His healing came.

He encouraged my heart to believe that there was beauty on the horizon. He lifted my head, helping me realign my focus with His perspective. As I sang songs, proclaiming promises of life, He stilled my anxious thoughts. It wasn’t a one-time occurrence; it was a constant journey, and He walked with me faithfully. He listened to my questions, heard my cries and caught my tears. I felt His comfort deeply, and it changed me.

God answered my prayer for another child; Abigail was born 22 months after Elise. It was a time of great celebration. Abigail was everything I had longed for. I felt the blessing of motherhood on a new level and cherished each moment of life with her. My family teased that they rarely had the opportunity to hold her because I wasn’t very good at sharing. I agreed and laughed with them, but their chiding did not change me. I had waited and suffered, doubted and believed for this moment, and she was mine.

My next two pregnancies were easy. Bryce and Carson were born, and life settled into a predictable rhythm. I was a stay-at- home mom and endeavored to delight in each day. Parenting was often a beautiful mess but exactly what I had asked God to give me. I felt Him speaking to my heart and found myself experiencing His love in deeper ways — motherhood opened me to love on a different level.

Disconnected and Discontent

I started to realize Charlie had not joined me on this journey with God. He listened to my experiences, and sometimes it seemed like he wanted them to be his story too. Other times, it felt like he had given up. I encouraged him to keep his heart open because I knew that if he closed his heart off from God, it would simultaneously close to me as well. Throughout the years, I saw moments of depression when he struggled with the loss of our first daughter again and again. They lasted a few days at most and did not interfere with his ability to work or invest in our children, but they changed our relationship. He closed off his heart, refusing to talk about the pain with me or anyone else.

That Indian summer October morning he broke his silence. It started as a beautiful day. The sun was warming the dewy fields, the leaves were just beginning to change color, and there was a pleasant breeze. The sky was bright and clear. There were no signs of the darkness that would come crashing down upon my family and our community later that morning. Charlie walked with us to the bus stop. He kissed Abigail and Bryce and told them he loved them before they boarded the bus and headed off to school. Back at home, he told me that he had an appointment for work, kissed Carson and me and left. It was a simple morning.

Hours later, the phone rang. When I heard his voice on the other end, I immediately knew something was wrong. “Marie, I’m not coming home.” That was the start of our very last conversation. I could tell by the tone of his voice that I would never see him again. He sounded different than anything I had heard in our almost 10 years of marriage. His voice was flat and cold — lifeless. I struggled to understand. I felt like my entire 28 years of life were flashing before my eyes, that with this call, I lost my grasp on every hope and dream and promise I had ever believed in. And yet, I didn’t know how much worse it was going to get. While I feared that Charlie would harm himself, I had no idea that his plan involved others, much less children.

I begged and pleaded for him not to do whatever it was that he was talking about. I told him it was never too late to turn things around. There would always be someone who could help. He didn’t listen. He told me about a note he left for me. He said that I should read it, that it would help me understand. Then he asked me to tell his family that he loved them. He hung up. That was it. That was the last time I would ever speak to my husband.

Anger Changed Everything 

After our call ended, I read his note. There was much that made no sense to me, but I knew something very bad was going to happen. It felt like a suicide note. I called 911, hoping to stop whatever was going on. As I explained Charlie’s call, his letter, and answered questions, I could tell the operator had information he was not sharing with me. I began to hear sirens from our community fire department. I saw police cars racing up the street outside my house, and I heard helicopters flying overhead. I had no idea what was going on but believed that it must involve Charlie. I closed my eyes and attempted to pray. Panicked and distressed, all I could muster was, “God help.” It seemed too small for the magnitude of this crisis, but I knew no other words in that moment. I knew that God heard my heart.

It wasn’t long until the police were at my door relating details so horrible that my mind could hardly comprehend them. The Charlie that walked into the Amish schoolhouse, barricaded it shut and shot those girls was not the man I knew. He turned the gun on himself, and everyone wanted to know why. I showed the letter to the police. Charlie referenced the loss of our daughter Elise years before and the way that anger towards God had consumed his heart. Anger changed everything. It changed Charlie, consuming his heart and snuffing out the light with darkness. He had kept this secret locked away inside himself.

After I finished talking with the detectives, I started processing the events of the past couple of hours. How could this possibly be my life? There wasn’t time for denial; I had to respond to the devastation that forced its way upon me. What would I choose to believe about life now? In a moment, God reminded me of the prayers I had prayed, the way I saw Him working, the testimonies shared by others of His presence in their lives. With God, nothing is impossible. I chose to believe that this would not be the day that our lives ended, that the enemy would not win. We would not be victims. We would be victorious because God would rescue us, just as He had done in the pages of the Bible, in the lives of others and throughout my own life. I did not know exactly how or what or when. I simply knew that He would. I was desperate. I could do nothing but trust Him. It was all I knew how to do, all I had left to do.

I began to gather everything I thought my family might need for a week and packed my car. We couldn’t stay in our home as the media swarmed. We went to my parents’ house, which was close by but far enough away for that afternoon.

Seeking Refuge, Finding Forgiveness

I dreaded the conversation that would come next; I couldn’t imagine telling my kids about the choices their father had made and what had happened that morning. My kids were playing in the back yard with my mom and dad, the sound of their laughter drifting into the house through open windows. I soaked in those sounds and cried out to God with the anguish of a mother’s broken heart. “This was not supposed to be their life; they should not know this heartbreak. You must fix it.” I felt His answer in a promise of redemption. He would not fix it, but He would redeem it. God’s promise of redemption carried me. It reminded me of the way He transformed my life during past seasons of loss. It inspired me to believe that He would do the same, and more, this time.

That day, everyone wanted me to give an answer for Charlie’s choices. I honestly had no answers aside from what he wrote in his letter. There were no other clues, but I felt the weight of it all deep within my heart. I had no answers to give, only questions that I could not ask.

I noticed a group of Amish men coming down the street. I instinctively knew they were coming here. This was my community; our families knew each other. What would I say to them? What answers would they demand? I felt inadequate again. I went to my parents and asked what I should do. My dad said he would go outside and talk with them.

I watched from the window. I could not hear their conversation, but I could see everything. I saw the way they put their hands upon my dad’s shoulders, the way they looked him in the eyes and the way tears flowed down many faces. As they turned and walked out the driveway, my dad came back inside. It took some time for him to recover from the emotion of that exchange before he could speak. What he said stunned me.

“Marie, they came because they were concerned about you and the children. They wanted to make sure that you were ok. They wanted you to know that they have forgiven Charlie and are extending grace and compassion over your family.” It was the opposite of what I assumed. Their extension of grace freed me from the weight I felt to give a response for Charlie’s choices and released me to find the healing I desperately needed in the arms of God. I thought about the scene they must have just left and imagined parents weeping; heartbreak and agony was their atmosphere too. I was stunned — they were thinking about my family at a time when their families were facing unimaginable pain and sorrow.

They didn’t wait to tell me how they felt; they came immediately and gave an extraordinary gift.

Forgiveness is a choice. I chose to forgive Charlie just as the Amish families forgave him. I knew that anger had completely overtaken his heart. I did not want to risk the same scenario for myself. Over the next few months, God spoke to me about the choice to forgive and what it would birth within me. Forgiveness was not about setting Charlie free — it was about setting myself free. The past could not control my future — I was not bound to the label, “the shooter’s wife.”

Childlike Wonder 

I continued to ask Jesus to show me what my life looked like from His perspective. He could see through my pain and into the future prepared for me. He spoke to my heart and reminded me of treasure hunts I had enjoyed as a child. The anticipation and delight had grown as I traveled from one clue to another and deciphered the details that eventually led to the final surprise. I felt Him saying that I should view my life, our lives, as if we were on a treasure hunt now. I was to look for every clue that showed His tangible presence and love in our lives. His perspective changed everything as it transformed my thinking and brought the anticipation of finding Him.

This treasure hunt has brought breathtaking beauty. I married Dan Monville in 2007, and we have a wonderful, blended family. Dan is a great encourager. The love we share is part of my redemption story. I cherish my family — they are my greatest gifts. In the midst of my brokenness and ache, I continue to feel God encouraging my heart to believe that there is more, that He has redemption planned for me in every loss. I hold tight to His promises, even though I can’t see them all yet. I have to trust Him. I know God loves me. He has never failed, and that’s enough. His love always wins.

 

One Comment

  1. I had the blessing of hearing Marie speak recently at a Church of God Women’s Retreat. Her faith and forgiveness are an inspiration for me. I need to read her testimony daily so that it can be a reminder to me of no matter what I am going through, God wants me to forgive and trust in his redeeming love and power. As a spoiled country and generation, those are things I tend to forget. Thank you, Marie, for sharing your testimony, as it continues to bless my life.

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