No fireworks

On the most memorable Independence Day of my life, there were no fireworks.

DSCN2680Well, that’s not entirely true. I remember glancing across the horizon, over hills and pastures in the Oklahoma prairie, and seeing traces of a firework show in the distance as tears and sweat mingled on my cheeks. I stood alone in a field on an American Indian Reservation, having spent the day helping my fellow volunteers nail shingles and paint rails and complete other tasks to help a growing congregation build a new place of worship.

I was a total phony. I’d been raised in church all my life. I memorized the books of the Bible at age six and had the bookmark to prove it. I led prayers and events for my youth group regularly, but all of the Scriptural knowledge I’d acquired had mostly remained stuck in my head; the bulk of it had not made its way into my heart.

When my life took a tragic turn, I didn’t know how to marry my religious beliefs with reality. I smoked pot, wrote in my journals, and listened to sad, pathetic music instead. This got me through the roughest year of my life, but it didn’t bring me true peace. So on Independence Day, after the longest and most painful and loneliest year of my life, I stood alone in that field, and said the most desperate prayer of my life.

“God, if you can give me real peace, please do it.”

???????????????????????????????And He did. He didn’t need to display Himself with any fancy colors, loud kabooms, or expensive displays. He just moved all of those meaningless words that were stuck in my head down the ladder of abstraction deep into my soul in one fell swoop.

They settled there heavily. I felt full. I felt peace.

That’s a freedom that I’ll carry with me forever.

This is my story . . .

*My friend Samantha Hogan has been gracious enough to share my life story with her followers on Facebook. I thought I’d share it on my own blog as well. A wise woman once told me, “The past is in the past. You don’t have to bring it up or talk about it ever again, unless you choose to, and unless it can help someone else.” 18 years ago, my reality was harshly altered. 18 years later, God has transformed me and refused to let ugly actions permanently alter my beautiful future. Here’s hoping God will do what He says He’ll do for YOU in Isaiah 63–transform ashes into beauty.*

What my life was like before

I was baptized in a creek when I was five years old. I had no clue what I was doing or what it meant. I just wanted to be like my dad. Months before he left our family and became smothered by his drug addiction, he was baptized as part of a semi-charismatic revival or camp meeting. I don’t remember the details. I just remember my dad sitting me down on a big rock before we headed down to the creek, asking me why I wanted to be baptized.

“Because you are, Dad.”

So they let me. It didn’t hurt anything. I barely remember it.

After my parents divorced, my mom was stuck raising four girls, ages seven and under, by herself. She still managed to take us to church. For a while, she dropped us off for Sunday School and picked us up afterwards. Then she started going with us again. In Sunday School, I learned all the books of the Bible and earned a beautiful orange, shiny bookmark, the first of several hundred in my current collection. My Sunday School teacher must have understood the hardships my mom faced because she offered to pay to send me to gymnastics lessons, something I wanted to do but something a single mom on welfare cannot afford. Mrs. Gutshall was one of the first people to show me, not tell me, how to love others and give selflessly, for fun and for free.

My super cool friend Morgan, circa 1990-ish

My super cool friend Morgan, circa 1990-ish

When my mom remarried, and we relocated to Arkansas after her graduation from dental hygiene school, we started attending a small Southern Baptist church within walking distance from our house. During a lay renewal that September, my friend Morgan wanted to “get saved” when her grandma, our teacher, asked anyone who wanted to ask Jesus into her heart to say a prayer with her. Morgan grabbed my hand, so I decided I better pray the prayer, too, since Morgan was cool, and she was my BFF.

At that time, I gained a better understanding of what “church things” meant. I knew God was God. I understood basic Christian doctrine. I’m not sure I understood what the future held, and that in only six short years, having basic head knowledge of Christianity would not cut it. I would need more than that. I would need a passionate, desperate, trusting relationship with the Healer.

Growing up, I maintained that head knowledge and fostered it. I grew in understanding, memorized verses, and refused to have sex, drink, or do drugs. I wasn’t perfect, but I liked being the “good girl” in my group of friends. My churchy background taught me that if I did X, Y, and Z, I could basically guarantee an easier, more joyous, and safer life.

That proved to be false.

What happened to change me

When I was 16, I was raped the first time I had sex by a family friend. I didn’t tell my mom, for reasons too confidential and complicated to explain in a few short sentences. I harbored the hurt, PTSD, and anger for years. I wrote in my journals, smoked a lot of marijuana, and engaged in risky behaviors. I didn’t care anything, most of all myself and my own well-being. “True love waits” was a joke. You can wait as long as you want, I thought, but someone can screw everything up for you anyway. So who cares?

Me "faking it" during the worst year of my life.

Me “faking it” during the worst year of my life.

I didn’t. Not anymore. A few friends reached out to me and recognized the drastic difference in my attitude, the look in my eyes, my decision-making. But for the most part, I kept up a fairly Stoic façade and did so well enough to fool my parents and most other people in my life.

When I went on a mission trip to help build a church in Oklahoma, something clicked. Maybe it was the feeling I got from helping others. Maybe it was putting some distance between me and the marijuana and friends and negativity back home. Maybe it was the Native American man who took me aside after I sang during a worship service and said, “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something special about you. You keep using that gift. You keep following God. He’s going to do something with you.”

On July 4, 1996, as the sun set and the fireworks began, I slipped away from the group and sat on an old rickety wooden fence and had a candid discussion with the God who I presumed existed but did not care too deeply about me personally.

Well, I’ve tried everything else. If you can give me peace and change me, please, please, PLEASE do it.”

That was it. No big words. Just a big moment in my soul.

I’d like to say that’s the end of the story, and that I lived happily ever after.

That’s not real life. It’s not my real life, anyway. Afterward, my faith grew exponentially. But my ability to let go of the coping mechanisms and go-to reactions I’d acquired as a result of trusting Bethany rather than trusting God were not easy to part with. My spiritual life was literally a roller coaster. I lived very much like the Israelites in the Old Testament who worshipped God, followed Him for a while, got cocky, did their own destructive things for a while, crashed and burned, repented, and started the cycle all over again. I spent almost two years free from the behaviors I’d engaged in to fill a void in me. Then I reverted right back to 16 year-old Bethany for a while. Then I spent another year clean and clear and growing like a weed spiritually. Then I reverted again.

I did this, with varying lengths of time between relapses, for years. It seemed that I could never fully trust God, although my heart really wanted to. It seemed that my mind wouldn’t let me. My tendency to over analyze, criticize, and cynically rip apart every pure intention only worsened when I became entrenched in the disease of alcoholism after marrying a man who could not stop drinking.

Years went by. I kept going to church. I kept reading my Bible. But I became less trusting, more cynical, and more bitter. Then, thanks to my second husband’s addictive behavior leading me to a point of crisis, I turned to an anonymous recovery program for help. And I got it.

I didn’t just learn how to change my actions and behaviors. I had the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start over, just me and God. No churchy religious mess in the way. Nobody telling me what to think and believe. No judgmental, self-righteous “we’re praying for you” whispers—translated as “we’re all talking about you”–around me.

Just me. And God.

What my life is like now

That was six years ago. Since then, I’ve continued to grow closer to God, little by little. I am far from perfect, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The more I lean on God, and the more I let Him have, the less the old Bethany shows up. And the more I like who I am.

Changing is a process, not a moment. It involves a lot of sweat and tears, a lot of falling down and getting up again, and a lot of forgiveness. It took giving up on church for a while and wrestling with God honestly. It took a recovery program, and it still does. It took Christian counseling, too, because some scars are deceitful, just scabs covering festering wounds from the past. Thankfully, God is patient, kind, and tender-hearted, and His kindness led me to repentance, over and over again. It still does, and it always will.

Today I choose to do the next right thing more often because I have a secret, precious, deep relationship with the Man Who Healed My Heart. I know I cannot lose His love, no matter what, and the more I make choices to trust Him, the more I trust Him, because He keeps proving Himself trustworthy.

cropped-009.jpgI have the Chinese symbol for trust and belief tattooed on my left wrist to remind me of what matters.

And I have His Love wrapped around my heart, which is really all that matters.

First

First time I had sex, I was raped.

First marriage failed.

First gymnastics meet, I dislocated my elbow.

First job in my field, teaching English, was perhaps the worst job I’ve ever had in my life.

debbie downer*Cue Debbie Downer waaah waaaah.*

Clearly, my track record of firsts isn’t necessarily full of gold star stickers and smiley faces.

That’s just not been my life experience.

Until I met my husband. I’m not sure, but I suspect that God has anointed him with an innate sense of what I need and the uncanny ability to meet my needs without my saying a word.

When I met him, things changed.

In reality, I think my perspective simply switched gears, probably thanks to three years in my twelve-step recovery program. I started noticing every first in our relationship, and I’d never done that before. I began to cherish all our moments.

On the porch of my old house, October 2010

On the porch of my old house, October 2010

First time we met at our mutual friend’s birthday party. First time he called me a few days later after my sister sent him a Facebook message, begging him to call me so I would shut up about him. First double date with that same mutual friend and his fiance.

And all the firsts he introduced me to–and still does. First time going to dozens of local landmarks and beautiful places. First time taking a road trip on a four-wheeler. First time on a boat on the White River. First time catching trout and going limb-lining for catfish. First time going hunting (successfully securing venison for future date nights, I might add). First time baking cupcakes from scratch. First time being serenaded by banjo.

Emptying his pockets to purchase our new car :).

Emptying his pockets to purchase our new car :).

First time in my life that anyone has ever paid enough attention to my eyes lighting up at the sight or mention of things and then making those things happen–whether it be a rickety old farmhouse that no one else might want, a safe new vehicle for our baby, or a genuine Rambo knife.

He knows me.

And the most beautiful thing is taking place in our lives.

We have the opportunity, every single day, to create firsts with our daughter. And thanks to my husband’s hard work and his commitment to our family, I get to be here at home with her to see each first as it unfolds.

Maggie's first visit to Lake Dardanelle, 4/6/13

Maggie’s first visit to Lake Dardanelle, 4/6/13

First time petting our cats or letting our dog Clyde lick her chubby fists. First time seeing a tractor scooping up dirt. First time touching the base of an ice-cold glass. First time rolling over and shining with glee and pride in her accomplishment. First time seeing a river or a lake. First time going to church. First time dancing with her Papaw, waltzing through our kitchen. First time being held by the people we love the most.

Great memories. Positive experiences. Joyful smiles. God-filled goodness.

It’s like my life has started all over again.

 

This little light of mine

Our little light

Our little light

Since my daughter’s name, Margaret, means “daughter of light,” and since my 2013 word of the year is light, almost every night while nursing her, and other times during the day when I spontaneously break into song-and-dance (happens often, folks), I sing her a sunny compilation of light-themed songs. You Are My Sunshine. Shine, Jesus, Shine. And of course, This Little Light of Mine.

Maggie was named after both sides of our families. Margaret is her great-great grandmother on her father’s side of the family. Jacqueline is my mother’s name. When selecting her first name, I was torn between one name I absolutely loved the sound of. It was more trendier and cuter, really. But its meaning fell flat for me, even though I tried to repeatedly convince myself that it didn’t matter.

It did. Meanings matter to me. Words matter to me. So names matter even more.

When I learned that Margaret means “daughter of light,” I was sold.

My life’s love story has been one of Light piercing through what seemed at times to be impenetrable darkness. Over and over again. The passionate pursuit of Light, in search of my muddled soul’s heartbeat. Never thwarted by layers of stagnation, sadness, or sin, the Light has searched me out. It has found me. It loves me.

Maggie's room and her life verse hanging above her crib

Maggie’s room and her life verse hanging above her crib

As I painted the sign for my daughter’s room with her life verse on it, I had no idea that a few months later, I’d read the book Praying Circles Around Your Children by Mark Batterson and that I was setting into motion a master plan, orchestrated by Someone much more omniscient,  to pray meaning and purpose into my daughter’s life.

“Arise, shine, for your Light has come. And the glory of the Lord rises upon you.” -Isaiah 60:1

That she would glorify God. That His glory would rise upon her. That she would reflect the Light her entire life.

She already does. My mom, not knowing at the time about her life verse, commented a few weeks ago that her smile lights up the room so brightly that there’s no need for electricity. Of course, this is a grandma speaking. But it’s true. Through bouts of illness since becoming pregnant, she has brought light and joy and hope to me countless times. I see her father’s countenance change, too, when their eyes meet.

And tonight I got to take my little light to church for the first time. Even though she wasn’t a fan of the music and also seemed to be missing her teething toy, Sophie the Giraffe, there was one brilliant moment.

As I swayed with her in the back of the room, hoping to soothe her, I noticed a woman crying. Not weeping softly. Crying. Sobbing. Holding onto her husband and shaking from sorrow. She reminded me of my stepmom, Jodi, a recovering addict whose health problems related to her addiction cost her to lose her life a few years ago.

I caught the woman’s eye. And that Still Small Voice reminded me of my daily prayer over my daughter.

“Let her be light.”

Sucking it up and overcoming my germaphobic tendencies, I slowly walked up to the woman during the worship music with my four month-old daughter and hugged that woman close and whispered words of encouragement in her ear. She stopped crying and touched Maggie and smiled. And of course, Maggie smiled that smile that wins everyone over who is privileged enough to witness it.

Maybe Jesus wants some of us for sunbeams, but Maggie’s the moon, reflecting Light in even the darkest moments.

That little light of mine shone bright tonight.

2013 word of the year

ImageIn 2011, I was inspired by my friend Denise Felton to select a word of the year. In 2011, my word was “freedom.” I knew freedom was a goal–I didn’t know that God had gone ahead, planned in love, and laid plans to free me from incredibly heavy chains of the past, enabling me to truly enjoy the love of my life and to later experience sweet reconciliation and redemption related to my deepest, darkest secret.

In two short years, I found freedom from my past, freedom to live in the present, freedom to love and trust, and freedom to dare to dream about the future.

This year, another friend of mine who was inspired by my “word of the year” journey toward freedom decided to select a word of the year herself. Call it peer pressure, but knowing that she’s already receiving blessings and insights related to the word she selected for 2013 really motivated me to start contemplating my own word for 2013.

Choosing a word of the year might be a random, quick process for some people. For me, it takes time. It’s simple–I pray and ask God to make it very clear to me which word to focus on–but it takes time. Yesterday, I prayed that God would reveal the word to me and that He’d make it clearer than usual because my brain lacks the ability to perform its typical functions lately due to lack of sleep (as a result of adjusting to life with my beautiful infant daughter).

“Lord,” I prayed, “I’d like to know if there’s a word you want to give me this year, something to focus on. But You might have to stick it right in front of my face, or I may miss it.”

ImageAfter finishing my prayer while sitting at my desk, attempting to alert myself with a cup of coffee, I opened my eyes and saw my word stuck right in front of my face. Literally.

A few years ago, I attended a conference for women in particular 12-step recovery programs. At the conference, we participated in a group meditation called a “whisper walk.” I’d participated in whisper walks a few times before, and each time, the phrases given to me to recite were precise messages from God that pierced my heart (and always produced tears, of course). One of the messages from the whisper walk was tacked to my bulletin board directly in front of my laptop.

“God’s light shines through you.”

Light.

A proverbial electrical switch flipped and illuminated my mind (perhaps the coffee kicked in at that exact moment as well). Of course, light.

My daughter was born in November. As we duked it out over the name selection process, we finally agreed to select two family names since we both prefer traditional names and wanted to honor our families as well. Our daughter’s first name, Margaret, means “daughter of light.”

ImageAs I spent many hours sitting, praying, and reading due to excessive swelling during pregnancy, I rediscovered a verse which I dubbed “Maggie’s verse,” Isaiah 60:1. Many years ago, when I was in my early 20’s, I spent a weekend at a women’s retreat for my local church. One of the women, who happened to be my accountability partner at the time, woke me up Saturday morning by whispering the most gentle, wonderful words to me:

“Arise, shine, for your light has come. And the glory of the Lord rises upon you.”

Ahhh. I remember turning my grumpy, typical morning frown upward and thinking, “Now that’s a great way to wake up in the morning.”

Each morning, since my daughter came home from the hospital, I have whispered those wonderful words to her as I gently rouse her. I sing the words to her in a made-up song multiple times a day.

Yesterday, after settling on “light” as my word of the year, I attached a leash to my overjoyed beagle and hiked into the woods behind our home. As my boots carried me down the well-worn paths I’ve walked many times before, the sunlight penetrated my body and warmed me. I began to realize that the word “light” was not just for my daughter; it is for me, too. God wants to be a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Psalm 119:105). He is willing to be my light and my salvation, giving me no reason to fear the darkness (Psalm 27:1). He has broken the chains of my past that kept me focused on dark shadows, and He invited me out of the spiritual cave I dwelt in, revealing a lighter world. He repeatedly reminds me that if I focus on the problem, it increases, yet if I focus on the solution, it increases.

This year, may I close my eyes to the darkness, look to the Light, and see more clearly than ever before.

 

What I’m listening to

It’s hard to resist the temptation to listen to the Sirens of the past.

In fact, living in the moment is one of the hardest life lessons I’ve learned. I didn’t learn how to do it easily. It didn’t come to me naturally. And I certainly didn’t acquire the ability quickly.

It’s taken years.

Through a combination of catastrophic choices and traumatic trials, I came to believe that my life simply wasn’t going to turn out the way I’d wanted it to. And in truth, I had never had many visions of a pleasant life or goals for changing the world. After age 16, when many fundamental truths seemed disproved by my circumstances of sexual assault and the aftermath that entails, I discarded the notion that setting goals was even worthwhile. What’s the point, if someone can come along and rip your plans away from you? What’s the purpose in believing that if you do X, Y, and Z, God will bless you and work all things together for your good?

And so I allowed my past to dictate my present–and in turn, my present dictated my future. I didn’t feel worth much, and my relationship choices reflected those feelings. I dated random people temporarily to fill emotional voids, using them as crutches and stepping stones. When I finally settled into a real relationship, it was with someone who was honest with me and told me he simply didn’t feel the same about me as I felt about him or was not as sure about our relationship as I was. I chose to ignore the warning and continued to pour my heart out, perhaps in hopes that I’d change his mind. I wanted to control my own destiny. I was determined to get what I wanted, perhaps because I felt I’d been stripped of other things I’d wanted.

That didn’t work, obviously. Although I didn’t see it at the time, God proved to me through that failed relationship that I was certainly not God and that I could absolutely not control another person’s feelings. I would refuse to heed this lesson–so God taught it to me over and over and over again over the course of an entire decade. Every time I tried to control my own circumstances–whether in relationships, at work, or otherwise–He thwarted my efforts and proved relentlessly that He was God. What a bummer.

Sometimes looking back is painful. The Sirens of the past sing the saddest, sweetest songs to me about things I left behind, things that might have been different if only, and things I could have done differently to change the tune of my life.

But I’ve chosen to turn my ear to different sounds now–to sounds occurring right now, all around me, not echoes of songs from what seems like aeons ago. I finally learned the lesson He’d been attempting to teach me for so long, slowly and painfully and not without much help from others who’d learned the same lesson already.

A week ago, my husband agreed to serve on a committee at church. A few days ago, he served communion during a church service. These might seem like small, insignificant life events to some people. But to me, having watched the years of my life rot before my eyes and people I loved fall apart and disintegrate right before my eyes, these were no small moments. This was seeing someone I’d dared to trust following God. It was seeing my prayers for him answered. It was seeing the disappointments of years gone by smeared away, the slate clean.

I could almost audibly hear Him whispering to me, “I will repay you for the years the locust has eaten” (Joel 2:25).

He has.

Things I never thought possible have occurred and continue to occur in my life today. Dreams I never allowed myself to dream have come true. Hopes I lacked the faith to hope for have been realized. And it just keeps happening this way as I listen to the laughter, the words of confirmation and love, and the quiet song of awe emanating from my heart today.

This new song is all I listen to now.

The Sirens might have drowned.

 

 

Getting it

This morning, as I read through 1 Chronicles, I came across a passage I’ve read and studied multiple times before, outlining the story of the return of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. Some of the details I remembered were missing from the 1 Chronicles version, so I flipped back to 2 Samuel to check out the other version.

“So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing . . . David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the Lord with all his might . . .  As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michael daughter of Saul (David’s wife) watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.”  –2 Samuel 6:12-16

Why?

I’ve never understood why Michal hated David for dancing before the Lord. Bringing back the ark was a huge spiritual success for David and the Israelites. Everyone with David was singing, shouting, and dancing. And as his wife, wouldn’t she want to share in his joy rather than turn up her nose at it?

Apparently not. My Bible’s footnotes explain that “Michal had no appreciation for the significance of the event and deeply resented David’s public display as unworthy of the dignity of a king.”

The bottom line: she just didn’t get it.

As I contemplated these verses over a cup of coffee and chocolate buttermilk pie, memories of times in my life when those around me “just didn’t get it” trickled in.

Striking a pose, 2009

I remembered attending three different churches over the course of a decade and going to ministry fairs hosted by each church. Each time, the churches sponsored a booth with a suggestion box and encouraged members to write down their specific spiritual gifts and talents if they hadn’t found a group, committee, or activity that seemed like a good fit. Each time, I wrote down, “I love to dance, and I feel it’s a gift God’s given me. I’d love to use that gift in some way.”

Crickets.

I never got a single response to that request. Dancing in a traditional, often Fundamentalist denomination, wasn’t really considered acceptable. Maybe to some, it would be considered “public display unworthy of the dignity of a Christian,” to paraphrase my Bible’s footnotes on Michal’s perspective on David’s dancing.

China, 2005

I recalled another moment in a church service, in one of these same churches, when the hymn Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus began playing. I had just returned from China and had felt the heavy spiritual oppression surrounding me for three weeks. I’d come to value freedom of expression in a way I’d never valued it before. It seemed only natural to physically stand in reverence to God now that I had the option to do so.

The minute I stood up, in the middle of several rows of pews, I believe colossal drops of sweat began to drip from the music minister’s face. I received multiple stares, and if my memory serves me correctly, the folks’ faces weren’t exactly reflecting support, encouragement, or brotherly love. Apparently I’d rocked the boat a little too much that morning and missed the memo outlining specific “don’t stand up during the Stand Up for Jesus song” instructions.

I recollected a time when I read a book about a native Indian man who proposed that if Americans truly want to assist in spreading God’s word to other people, their money may be better spent supporting native missionaries rather than foreign missionaries since native missionaries require much less financial backing; they’re already used to living in poverty-stricken places and can get by on much less. This book moved me and opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about things. I shared the book with my then-boyfriend. He read it, and when I asked him what he thought of it, he said, “I thought it was cute.”

Cute? A book about changing the world? His response brought tears to my eyes.

I reminisced about moments when I’d felt compelled to make choices based on my beliefs. I’ve walked away from movies and television shows, leaving friends confused over why I’d be offended at the content. I’ve tried to explain to people why I’m moved to tears over others’ addictions holding them back from the Light. I’ve given money and items to people–some whose names I don’t even know–when spurred by a strong, quiet voice instructing me to do so. I’ve visited and called and emailed friends to express my concern over something God revealed to me about their lives or current situations–each time, I really knew nothing about what was really going on; God just kept telling me to say something to them. So I did.

Acting on my spiritual gut feels pretty ridiculous sometimes. It’s often not dignified. It may involve making incredibly unpopular choices. It incites disgust, anger, and confusion.

But I can’t stop doing it.

I can’t stop dancing before the Lord with all my might when I know that’s exactly what He wants.

And I won’t worry about the Michals of the world who, sadly, may never get it.