The Purpose in Perseverance

       I had this brilliant idea to sign up me and my five-year-old son to run an obstacle race challenge challenge together. He has a new enthusiasm for the American Ninja Warrior television show.  So I thought this would be a fun way to fuel that fire, get us active and make a sweet memory together. Let’s call it a mother son bonding experience. As the race got closer, I started having more doubts. Maybe this wasn’t such a great idea. My son had cried walking the two blocks home from school because it was too strenuous just a couple weeks ago. There were tears of exhaustion on a casual, fun family bike ride one recent evening. This is the same kid that after going hiking, ingeniously came up with his plan of “drive thru hiking” as an alternative so he wouldn’t have to walk any further. Needless to say, he doesn’t have the reputation of being my most resilient child. I wasn’t sure how this was going to go.  

After crossing the finish line!

      The day of the race came, and he was never more excited! He was ecstatic and told everyone at church that morning that he was running a real obstacle race! Doubts swirled around in my head, but I didn’t falter and let them show. I gave him the very enthusiastic mom thumbs up and high fives needed. I tried to mentally prepare myself not to be that annoying mother that shames her child but uses words of encouragement and praise. Although I knew with my competitive nature that might be a challenge. As we stood on the starting line covered in bubbles and foam (because every good race should start that way), my son grabbed my hand and told me not to let it go. I could feel his anxious excitement. We counted down and the siren went off and off we went. We ran through the fire hoses and around the fields to the first wall climbing obstacle. We got through it together, although my son did get mad at me for “helping others win” when I gave a hand to some young girls beside us. That competitive nature must be genetic or something. It wasn’t but just a few minutes later when the exhaustion settled in.  My precious five-year-old was tired and not sure if he could finish. We had 10 more obstacles to go.  He so badly wanted to win the race, I could see it, but boy was he tired already. Being one of the youngest competitors, nearly all the other runners had passed us up and were out of sight. I looked at him and said, “Do you want to win?” A resounding yes was his reply! “This is how we do it”, I said. “We win if we don’t give up!” We win if we cross that finish line.” We win if you just keep going”. This little motivational speech was all he needed to hear to endure the heat and long distances for his short little legs. We carried heavy weights, belly crawled under wire, crossed muddy creeks, ran through tires, and climbed up and down large walls.  Although we didn’t finish first, we “slip and slided” through that finish line second to last with big smiles on our faces and a great pride in our hearts. I saw my son beaming with pride as they draped his medal across his chest. All those challenges laced with sweat and exhaustion had been worth it now. He looked up at me with bright eyes and a wide smile “We won mom! We didn’t give up!”.  

For the past seven years, the month of September always hits me hard. September 8 is the anniversary of a brutal attack that I survived. Each year around Labor Day, my body starts to feel the tension and anxiety. I find it harder to get out of bed and do normal every day things such as prepare breakfast or take a shower. It usually takes me a few days to realize this is PTSD at its finest. My counselors have told me multiple times that the body remembers trauma even if we are not consciously remembering it ourselves. Even though this phenomenon takes over my body every September I am always surprised by it. I want to be okay. I want to be past all of it and be able to move forward. Maybe this year will be different I think, and when it’s not, depression slithers in and I am caught as the unsuspecting victim once again. Seven years of fighting through all these emotions. This month I have tried to write to commemorate the anniversary, but a blank screen glared back at me for weeks.  I wanted to be able to write a post about the gratitude I feel, I could not get my fingers to type anything without feeling like a complete phony. My desire is always to do my best in being authentic. I aim to be raw and genuine not withholding the hard stuff, but I always desire to land my writing in a place of hope. As I sat down to write over the last few weeks, hope escaped me. I was nowhere near that landing zone. I was landing in despair, defeat, and discouragement. How can I encourage others when I’m not even finding it for myself?  

My view of Lake Michigan from a bluff in St Joseph Michigan.

As I have struggled and inched my way through September I may not have landed in a river of hope and joy, but I have learned a few things while sitting and listening for God’s voice to break through. A few weeks ago, I sat on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan in the early morning hours. The lake seemed to go on without end and was majestic in nature. My eyes were taking in a glorious view, but all I could feel was my heavy heart beating in my chest and sadness overwhelming my soul around it. As I sat above the beauty of creation and the tears flowed freely, I asked God when this pain was going to stop. I begged for the healing to come once and for all. I beseeched him for purpose in all this pain. Truth be told, I often don’t see an end to the suffering. I know that Jesus brings hope and joy. I sing about that all the time. I can cite a plethora of verses telling me that Jesus is better.  However all that was just knowledge in my head and was not seeping into my heart like it often does at other times of the year. You might be in the same boat as me. You may have heard someone tell you “this too shall pass” , but often as a fellow writer KJ Ramsey says sometimes it feels more like “this too shall last.” We are not guaranteed that our pain will end here on earth. In fact, we are guaranteed that trials will continue to come our way until our dying day. As believers, we may be able to find the joy and hope that is in Jesus on most days, but what about those days, weeks or months where his love isn’t always penetrating our hearts and filling us up. What about when those hard things seem just too hard and impossible to overcome? What do we do then? Friends, I will tell you the same thing I told my son a couple weeks ago, we persevere!  

My son learned an important life lesson during that obstacle race. He learned that when things are hard, the key to success is perseverance.  I have already used this on him multiple times this week when he tells me something is too hard for him. I remind him the difficulties of the race, but that he crossed that finish line. He seems to understand perseverance a bit more because he has experienced the benefits of it. Truth be told, this is a lesson I am constantly learning and struggle with daily. Perseverance is defined as “the steady persistence in a course of action, or a purpose, especially in spite of difficulties, obstacles, or discouragement”.  Perseverance takes effort, sweat and tears. It is not passive. You cannot sit by while the challenges of life come at you and overcome them. Perseverance is active and intentional. It’s a decision to stay in the race and fight through the adversity that stands in front of you. When those walls look too high to climb, it’s setting our eyes in the knowledge that there is a finish line ahead and prize that is worthy to be attained. Then we get through each obstacle as it comes. We cannot worry about what is up ahead and around the corner. We focus on what is in front of us now that God is giving us the grace to do overcome today. And when that exhaustion comes at us full force and we are ready to take a seat or throw in the towel, we remember that unlike a physical race we are not operating out of our own strength. We remember that our ability to spiritually overcome does not come from within us, but from Christ himself. I do not need to pull myself up from my bootstraps and bolster my own faith to get to the finish line. In fact, that would cause me to fall on my face in failure all the more. Hebrews 12:1-2 encourages us in this- “Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and the perfecter of our faith” (CSB). It is Jesus who is our source of energy and strength in this spiritual race we are running. As my son was competing in his obstacles, I didn’t run ahead or lag behind, I stayed by his side with a helping hand and an encouraging word. How much more so is our heavenly Father doing this for us? Even when it’s too dark to see through the fog and it doesn’t seem like his presence is a reality, He promises that he never leaves us. He is there with a strong helping hand reaching out for us. We just need to reah back and take it.  

We must call to mind the truth that behind every trial, we have a God who is working it for our good and his glory. He is for us, not against us. Romans 5: 3-5 goes as far to say this “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given us”. (NIV).  Even in those darker days, I cling to this verse and trust the process that God has laid out for me. My feelings want to say that this suffering is meaningless and the pain is pointless. My feelings want to believe that God isn’t listening to me or redeeming my story. However, I know that my feelings lie. I have decidedly chosen to believe in my heart the truths of God’s word. I believe that he is using every single tear drop and redeeming every part of the pain for a greater purpose. Nothing is in vain. I know that if I persevere long enough that the hope eventually comes back. It always does. I trust in Romans 5, that in my perseverance I can know that God is growing my character. And as my character is growing, hope begins to blossom in my heart once again. And as hope begins to blossom, I am now able to fully recognize that it was worth it all because God’s amazing love is overflowing from the depths of my heart. What a beautiful outcome and reward we have for us if we just hold on and endure.  

  I can understand perseverance a bit more because, like my son, I have experienced the benefits of it. Each October comes like a breath of fresh air. I may call it new month mercies (totally made that up, but I’ll go with it).  Because I live in a broken world and I am a human being, I will repeat this cycle over again and again in my lifetime. One day my faith will become my sight and I won’t have to persevere anymore. Until that day, I keep on fighting through and grasping on to hope. I want to encourage you today if you are in a dark season that feels never-ending, don’t give up. Keep going. Trust the process that your perseverance is building character, and that character brings about hope, and this hope does not disappoint! Our heavenly father is telling us “Persevere, keep going! You win if you don’t give up! You win because I have already won the race for you!”  

The Struggle of a Sunday

Sunday morning I walk into church at 9am and I’m already exhausted. It’s felt like I’ve run a marathon to actually get through the front door. The last two hours were a fight both physically and spiritually. My kids are always slower and grumpier on a Sunday, as am I. We can’t find shoes, kids are fighting, lots of coffee is poured, juice is spilled and tears are flowing. We are supposed to be there in 10 minutes yet nobody has brushed their teeth, breakfast is still slowly being consumed and church is a twenty minute drive away. Everything seems to go wrong and is preventing us from going. This doesn’t happen Monday through Friday for school. Mostly (not always) we are waiting at the door with backpacks on, matching shoes, and bright cheery faces for those days. But today is Sunday and that’s not how this day tends to go. I often whisper under my breath “is this even worth it?” as I am strapping down the toddler in the car seat. I put some worship music on for our drive, wipe my tears, try to calm myself and prepare my heart for what’s ahead.

The before church struggle is real, but let me tell you about the during church struggle. Once we are in the doors, I would think things would improve, but its an all new struggle that takes place and it’s predominantly all inside my heart. I check in my kids for their classes and all around me I see families gathered together. Everyone looks put together and happy. No one else looks like they’ve cried the whole way to church. During a a fellowship time when asked the question “Good morning, How are you?, everyone answers with a polite reply of “just fine, thanks!” What I want to say is, “Good morning, no I am not okay. My heart aches and I am not sure I am gonna make it through this day. How are you?” However I am sure that response would create an uncomfortable feeling for everyone involved, so I say my not so genuine calculated response of “just fine, thanks” and go take my seat. I sit in my pew and new emotions start to flood me. I see dads holding their kids in their arms with their arms wrapped around their wives. Church is great place for families. I flash back to just a few years ago, when I was in my home church in Texas. My husband on stage giving announcements or doing baptisms, teenagers all around us, and both babies of mine fully taken care of. I feel a place of belonging there. Now back to my present reality and I sit alone, unsure of how I fit in in this new community. So much has changed. I start to hear the whisper in my ear that I am too broken and messed up to be here. I hear the whisper that I am the only one struggling this way. I want to turn and walk out that door, but I don’t.

What keeps me walking through the door of church each Sunday? See, I know those whispers are actually lies and I know where they come from. Oh how the enemy would love for me to believe them. Now when I hear those whispers I look around and see the community of people around me, but I don’t see perfection anymore. I have to look a little harder and then things become clearer. I see other single moms wiping their tears with kids straggling behind them. I see widows and widowers pressing on. I see friends who are also fighting through depression or anxiety and choosing faith over fear. I see couples who are struggling through infertility and loss holding on to hope. I see cancer survivors and those with chronic illness. I see other exhausted parents at a loss with strong willed children. I see the behind the scenes stories of great faith that display the goodness of our Savior. As I see all those people lifting their hands up in worship, those whispers in my ear are drowned out by the congregation of God’s hurting people singing with one voice. There is nothing more beautiful and inspiring to me than to see those who are suffering through great trials continue to choose to fight for faith and choose to worship anyway. This is what draws tears to my eyes and brings me to my knees. It renews my faith and encourages me to keep going. It is a reminder that God is continually at work and redeeming the lives of his people. I believe the suffering church brings great glory to our Savior as we look to him together as a community of broken hurting people and declare with one voice that He is still glorious and good. It puts on display to the world where our hope lies, and it’s not in our circumstances, but in Jesus alone.

We all have different stories, but we all live in the same broken world. We all experience pain, loss and disappointment as we walk our faith journeys. Unfortunately in the world of social media we can only see a glimpse of others’ lives and what they choose to share with the digital world. It can still seem like a person has everything going right for them and free of hardship and pain, yet the reality is they are walking through the same depression just as you are. I once heard someone say we are comparing our insides to everyone else’s outsides. This is why authentic community is so very important especially to the Christian. How vital it is for all of us to know the suffering of those around us if just for the reason that we know that we are not alone?

So how do we know and learn the stories of those sitting across the aisle from us each Sunday? From my experience it often takes someone to be brave enough to go first. Brene Brown, who has spent decades studying vulnerability, says the “vulnerability breeds vulnerability”. She obviously knows what she is talking about. The church could use some help in this area. We often want to be viewed as godly and strong. We don’t anyone to know about the unbelief and doubt that keeps creeping in. We don’t want to appear needy or weak. We want to be able to just say glory to God and keep moving forward without facing the heartache right in front of us, but that’s not the way we were created. We were created to be in community and encourage each other. In order to encourage one another we must be willing to share the struggles we are facing. We must be willing to change our answer from, “I am just fine” to” I am having a hard time and need prayer”. From my personal experience, when I have shared both privately and publicly about sexual assault, anxiety, divorce, or doubts , I will receive a resounding reply of “me too”. Others realize they are not alone. Just this month a few different friends of mine have opened up with me about their battles with depression and thoughts of harming themselves ( some presently and some in the past), and made it safe for me to say “I have been there too!” It’s definitely scary to expose the parts of our story that are hard, but it can lead to the deepest of friendships. Unfortunately other times it can drive away friends that just aren’t ready to handle the hard stuff. If that happens then maybe they aren’t the people you need in your life during a difficult season anyway.

Some of you may not be in a present season of suffering, but have had times of heartbreak in your pasts that you haven’t talked about in years. The people you are crossing paths with in this season of life may have no idea about the seasons that are behind you, but they need to. That young mom needs to hear the empty nester she looks up to tell the story about the many battles she had with her strong willed child or how her now wonderfully grown up son once set fire to a field for fun in his youth. (this may or may not have been a story that encouraged me this week.) That young couple may need to hear of your many years of loss before you had the children who they see in church running around today. The woman taking chemo treatments could use your story of beating the odds so many years ago. TEven if the story isn’t the same scenario, it is still valuable to those walking through a trial. Someone may need to hear about your story of suffering in the past just so they know that someone else has gone through unfathomable circumstances and survived. They can find hope in our great God because you were willing to share your story. I have found great hope in the stories of those in my very own church who have walked or are walking a similar path of being divorced and a single parent.

I once learned that the word Testimony can be translated “To do again’ and my life has never been the same. When we share our testimony of how God has intersected with our story, we are literally proclaiming ” He did it for me, and He can do it again for you too!” Of course every story doesn’t play out the same, but in some way God always enters the story, no matter how tragic, and redeems and makes good from it. In Revelation 12:11 we can see the power of the testimony as its says ” And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”. It is through the declaration of our stories and God’s faithfulness in them, that we defeat the enemy not just in the end times but right now! Our stories are weapons against a powerful foe who desires to keep us silent. We see all throughout Psalms the command to declare the glory of God to all people and to make his works known. Our voices matter.

He is at work in each of our stories. Some of us, me included, are still trying to put the pieces together and understand what He is doing. However, I still know that He keeps providing and caring for me in dark and difficult seasons. So even though walking in the church door on Sundays is often still a spiritual battle , I am always strengthened in my faith as I walk out the door. The church is a messy messy place with messy messy people. Growing up I often heard the quote “Church isn’t a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners”. I never quite understood that until this season of my life. So this bloodied and bruised up girl is going to keep on walking through those doors each Sunday and find hope in Jesus and in the marvelous deeds He is doing among the people in the pews next to me.

My Biggest Fear

My biggest fear used to be losing my husband. I felt like losing him just might be the end of me. I remember someone asking me the totally unfair question ” Which would be harder? Losing your spouse or losing your child?”. I thought about that dreaded question and came up with an answer pretty quickly. Of course losing a child was and is devastating to imagine, but I chose losing a spouse as being the more difficult path for me to walk. I think most moms would come up with another answer, but I didn’t. Here was my reasoning. I could not imagine walking through such great and devastating loss without the support and care of a husband by my side. See I had walked through tragedy before. In fact another one of my fears had transpired within 15 months of our marriage. I experienced a brutal sexual assault that left me needing both physical and emotional help for years. Although I had help and support from both friends and family, it was my husband who had walked most intimately with me in the grief and the healing. Family and friends were amazing, but it was my husband who witnessed the real anguish that came in the dead of night. It was my husband who would anchor me in the midst of an anxiety attack with the coping techniques we had learned in counseling. It was my husband who I could call at any moment of the day when I was hit with extreme fear as someone knocked on my front door or I had to walk by myself in the dark. It was my husband who sat with me awake all through the night praying scriptures over me and wiping my tears. How could I ever lose this kind of a support system? If I lost him, I felt like I would be completely and utterly alone in the times that grief was at its worst. Being alone, that was the root of my greatest fear. Yet it was my husband who told me the night of my assault that when we allow our biggest fears to consume us, we are not trusting that God’s grace is sufficient to carry us through whatever that fear is.  

At the end of 2016, my greatest fear became a reality and I lost my husband. Although I had played out this fear in my mind a million times, never once did I imagine that I would lose my husband to his own sin at his own choosing. I would lose him, but I could still hear his voice on the other end of a phone call. He was still in this world, but he was gone from my grasp. The guy who carried me through so much heartache was now the cause of so much more. My grief was overwhelming, rushing around me like roaring rapids that just wouldn’t quiet down or let me take a deep breath. Friends and family swarmed in to lend their love and support, but as predicted I found myself in the dead of the night utterly alone with an anguish that felt like it would swallow me whole. I felt justified in my fears of being alone. However, to my surprise as the days turned to weeks and the weeks turned to months, I realized that I was surviving my greatest fear.  

Many people called me strong and commended me for pushing through hard times. I knew they meant well, and I truly appreciated it. However, I knew there was no strength in me. Those people couldn’t see my 1am self, completely exhausted from a day of single parenting, still up with a sick crying baby who hadn’t slept, all the while trying to sort through pain that kept resurfacing. A once stranger called anger was now an uninvited guest in my home who wouldn’t leave. I wasn’t strong, I was a complete mess. Weakness oozed out of me in every direction. I would lay awake crying out to God in desperation for him to help me. I was all alone in the night walking through great grief. Why had he allowed this to happen?  God most generously showed me that I certainly wasn’t utterly alone in the dark. Although I didn’t have a physical presence to hold my hand, I had scriptures such as Isaiah 41: 10- Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  I had scriptures such as Hebrews 13:5 “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Every night for months I reached out for Jesus to show himself to me and carry me through and he did. I often felt as though it was a miracle that I made it through the day and wasn’t sure how I would get through without God’s grace in my life. As I now understand suffering in a broader way, I think that is the whole point. No matter our situation, whether we are in abundance or need, we cannot get through the day without God’s grace in our lives. It’s is just more obvious in those real times of struggle how much more so we need it. That is one of the reasons that those who have been through seasons of suffering can look back on that time and can actually miss it. We know it’s during these seasons, where we experience an intimacy with Jesus like never before.  We appreciate the goodness of God and his heart for the hurting. We remember that when everyone else seems to disappoint us, he never does.  

When I think back to the night of my assault in the Fall of 2012. I remember laying on a trampoline gazing at the stars while holding hands with my husband and him whispering those words of encouragement about fear. “Fear is deception”, he said. Fear is not trusting in God’s grace to help us overcome any situation. It is basically saying that God is not big enough to get me through that. I lay there amazed at the truth of that.  Of course like most women I had held a genuine fear of being attacked. What I experienced was awful and tragic and has come with great consequences, but I also know that God was big enough to take me through it and still give me a song in my heart. It’s ironic to think about these words coming from my ex-husband’s mouth so many years ago have still encouraged me today as I do this life without him.  We can spend our todays worrying about all our greatest fears coming true tomorrow and completely miss the mark of how grace works in our lives. God hasn’t given us the grace for a hypothetical situation that could happen one day. He gives us grace to face what is in front of us now.  If you had told me on November 2, 2016 that I would become a single mother and lose my husband in just one month, I would have completely and totally fallen apart. I would have never believed that I could survive such immense sorrow and weight of responsibility, but here I am surviving and finding joy in each day. This is not at all a testament to my strength and grit, but to how God’s grace is sustaining me each day. The first thing I see when I wake up each morning and as I lay down to sleep each night is a frame with the verse 2 Corinthians 12:9 “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” When I attempt to lean on my own strength, I fall hard and can’t get back up. Yet when I breathe this verse in and recognize the weakness in me, I find great strength.  If anyone sees strength in me that’s where it comes from!

We all experience fear no matter what stage of life we are in. We fear a bad diagnosis. We fear financial burdens.  We fear losing a child. We fear evil coming into our homes. We fear failure. We fear infidelity in our marriage. The list could go on and on. Think about what keeps you awake at night. I would never tell you that those are irrational fears or that God wouldn’t allow those things to happen. My story and the stories of so many of those around us show us that’s not true. We don’t need to look very far to understand that “bad things happen to good people”. However, if we let the truths of 2 Corinthians 12:9 sink into our hearts, we can put those fears back on the shelf and trust that the sufficient amount of grace will be there when we need it. God knows we can’t handle the anxious thoughts that swirl in our brains about the future. That is why he tells us not to worry about tomorrow and to cast our cares on him. He is big enough to handle all of those, not us. We need to focus on today and rest in the grace that he is offering right in front of us.  Thomas Merton said “I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone”. Our greatest fears need not consume us when we have a God who is so much bigger than them and promises to place his power upon us.

Lessons from Divorce Part 2- My Prideful Heart Exposed

     On November 5, 2016 I had the privilege of serving with the Heart of Texas Foundation in a phenomenal event called Day with Dad. This annual event is for children with inmate fathers to be able to visit and spend an entire day with their dad. The dads and their kids are reunited after years of being apart (some have never even met) and they are given the opportunity to be with each other without any glass between them. They play games, dance, throw birthday parties, give gifts and most importantly show up to love on their kids who so desperately need the affirmation of a daddy. It’s an emotional and powerful day for all involved. I wanted so badly to be a part of it after my husband had gone into the prison and been a mentor to the kids the year previously. However due to having a nursing baby ( I was pretty sure a breast pump wasn’t going to be the easiest thing to get through a men’s maximum security prison), I decided to serve in a different way. While the children spent the day in the prison, our church hosted the children’s caregivers, mostly single mothers and grandmothers. At the church, they are given a spa day, complete with homemade meals and a time of encouragement and community. I spent that day preparing the food for these amazingly strong women and then had the honor of going table to table serving each one of them. If I remember anything from that day, it would be the laughter of these women. They exhibited such joy despite living in some pretty dark and difficult circumstances. They all seemed so grateful. I was more than happy to serve them, but as I look back on it I regret that I didn’t stop and hear their stories like I should have. I didn’t need to. They weren’t relatable to me. They were in a situation that was unimaginable to me. Although I respected them, I didn’t understand them. These women were just too different from me. The irony is that it was less than 4 weeks later that I was in their exact same situation. I was now on the other side of the serving line.  We weren’t all that different from each other after all.

Nov 2017- Our first family photo of just the three of us.

How many times do we use the phrase, “I would never” in regards to talking about someone else’s situation? “Well I would never allow that to happen in my marriage, with my children, in my workplace, ect. ” Sometimes we are so bold to declare it outright as an absolute truth and other times it lives silently in our hearts. In some cases, it might be judgement against someone else’s sin. We may see another person’s destructive lifestyle and we utter those words ” I would never”. We think it’s their fault anyway, so we write them off and walk the other way. Then there is the judgement that comes from a false security you have built for yourself. We put pride in our hard work, right choices or even the privileges that we were born into. Often we don’t realize we are even doing this until we interact with those whose lives look different from ours. We see ourselves in a better societal position and credit that to our own doing somehow. I use the pronoun we to sound inclusive, but maybe I should be using the pronoun I. Because I am the one who stands guilty in doing this.  

After my husband was arrested and I was staring down the reality of having to choose divorce, God quickly but so kindly exposed my sinful heart and showed me the pride I had been living with for years. I had put great pride in my so called godly marriage and husband. I had done all the “right” Christian things when choosing a spouse. I had lived up to a “godly standard” of dating. I had prayed and fasted fervently over who I would marry. I had even chosen mission work over a former serious boyfriend because I felt God was asking me to do so. I knew I wanted a strong spiritual leader who would serve alongside me and follow after Christ together. I felt that I found that in the man I chose to be my husband. We were the best of friends, serving together and watching Jesus do amazing miracles in so many lives including our own. I walked down that aisle with full confidence I was marrying the person God had for me. I had checked off the right boxes, what could possibly go wrong? I remember laying in bed together our first year of marriage discussing how and why people get divorced. I could not imagine a scenario in our marriage that could ever result in divorce. We loved Jesus so much and that would be enough. We looked at each other and said ” we would never“. I naively judged those who were divorced thinking they just didn’t have enough faith or maybe it was their fault because they didn’t seek God enough in who they chose in the first place. I cringe while typing this, but for the sake of being super transparent I will share with you a bit more of just how prideful I really was. One day a few years ago, I was enjoying an interview on my favorite podcast until the moment I found out the guest was divorced. Friends, I confess to you that I actually switched to a different episode of that podcast. I switched because I assumed that she couldn’t offer me much wisdom if she couldn’t even fight for her own marriage. How horrible is that? I didn’t see my actions as horrible of course. I just thought that I had a high and biblical view of marriage. I thought my righteousness was shining through, but the truth was that my righteousness was as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6) I stand guilty for disqualifying that woman from ministry. It’s easy to turn a blind eye to our own sin, especially that of pride. I never realized how prideful and judgemental I was until I stood in the shoes of those I had judged before.  

Since making the decision to go forward in divorce ( which was made with alot of godly counseling and prayer) , God has taught me so much more of the importance of walking in humility and giving grace to others. I ask God to reveal the other areas of life where pride runs freely and mercy isn’t being offered to my neighbor. I wonder if we all need more of that prayer in our lives? How is judgement living silently in our hearts? Who are we looking at and saying ” I would never”? Is it the family on welfare, the Central American mother crossing the border to save her children from violence, or the fearful pregnant teenager considering abortion? Maybe it’s simply that young exhausted mom in the supermarket with unruly children. Maybe it’s the older guy in the sports car who just cut you off on the way to work this morning or the cashier at the grocery store who has a bit of an attitude. Maybe it’s the guy across the street with the Trump flag proudly flying? We don’t know people’s stories and the background they have come from to end up where they are now. We don’t know what trials they are facing or circumstances they are overcoming. It’s easy to stand back from afar and judge what you see on the outside, it’s a lot more difficult to humble ourselves and enter in to their stories and learn from them. I remember vividly standing in line at the Department of Human services wearing an Apple watch and Michael Kors purse (both gifts) applying for healthcare and food stamps for my children. How many people were judging me? Maybe a few. I had spent years advocating for immigrants and refugees in offices just like this one. It was humbling experience to be on the other side of the storyline.

We are all left broken and bleeding from this sick world in some way. As followers of Christ, we have all been redeemed and rescued and transferred into his kingdom. This grace is the same for all us. When we look at others and say ‘ I would never” we don’t understand the the depravity of our own hearts and the loving grace of Jesus in our lives. Essentially we don’t understand the gospel. When we put ourselves at the center of the story, we take away what it means to walk with Jesus. Take Saul from the New Testament. He was doing all the “right things” and judging all the “right people”. He had all the gold stars of being a devout Jewish follower of Yahweh. However Saul had an encounter with Jesus and his life and his name were changed instantly. Saul was now Paul. And thanks to my kids’ Jesus Storybook Bible, I now know that the meaning of Paul, means ” small and humble”, or a servant. This should be true of us. When we encounter Jesus and his grace, our lives should be changed to one of humility. Jesus lived a life of humility and He was God incarnate. He modeled it perfectly for us to follow. He bent down to serve the poor, lowly and despised in society. He extended his love and mercy to those the religious looked at as unworthy. What if we as American Christians were known for our humility and service instead of our pride and judgement? What if we looked more like the Jesus we follow and less like the Pharisees he so outrightly condemned?  

The problem is that pride runs deep. It’s not something we get freedom from and then praise God that we never have to deal that sin again. Pride creeps in easily and subtly so you may never know its there until it attacks and when it attacks it can be deadly. For me, pride is an enemy that can rear it’s head when I least expect it. I can easily utter the words ” All glory goes to God”, but my heart echoes “well some of that glory belongs to me”. I can say all that I want that I am not a judgemental person. I can say that I don’t have biases or prejudices, but that would be a lie. We all do. We are all born with ourselves at the center of our worlds. It takes significant effort, prayer and Holy Spirit power to get out of elevating ourselves and into a spirit of humility especially with those who don’t look like us, act like us, or pray like us. I have to look at myself in the mirror daily and allow God to seek my heart for where pride is growing. The most important antidote to the venom of pride is the Gospel. Jesus came and We must remember that we have done nothing to receive the grace of God in our lives. When I remember the truth of the gospel, my heart radiates gratitude, in turn gratitude results in humility and humility manifests a genuine love for others. For me this is a process I need to go through on a daily basis, sometimes on a moment by moment basis.

I wish I could go back to that church gymnasium in 2016 and sit down with those mothers and grandmothers, look in their courageous faces and hear their hard stories. I wish I could soak up all their wisdom and experience and tell them that their stories matter. I wish I knew that I would be in their shoes in just 4 short weeks.  I had no idea how incredibly hard it would be to raise children whose daddy is in prison. I do now. It only takes one decision ( your own or another person’s) to be on the other side of a story you never imagined. When we engage with people who have stories that are hard to understand, lets lean in instead of out. Let’s change the ” I would nevers” into a ” It could be me”.

To help me fight against pride in my heart here are some key verses I need to put on repeat.

Philippians 2:3 – Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.

James 4:10 –Humble yourselves before the Lord and he will exalt you.

Micah 6:8 – He has told you, O man, what is good;and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Colossians 3:12- Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Lessons from Divorce- Part 1

No one ever plans on getting divorced when they say I do. We all use the words forever and always on our wedding days just as we should. We imagine growing old together. I imagined a lot of things on my wedding day 8 years ago. I imagined an adventurous life, possibly doing missions work overseas. I imagined our love growing more and more full as we added children and watched each other turn into parents. I imagined celebrating decades of anniversaries. I did imagine hard times were ahead for us, but I always believed we would have a love strong enough to fight through any scenario and a God big enough to protect our marriage from brokenness. As the song “Your Love is Extravagant” played through that country church, I walked down that aisle on a warm June day towards the man I love with the possibility that a divorce would be in our future being the furthest thing from my mind. However, it wasn’t but a short 6 years later when divorce wasn’t just a possibility, but it became my reality.

June 18, 2011

There are still days when I look down at my left hand and feel the slight panic of sudden loss. I sometimes even turn from side to side in search mode before it hits me that I don’t wear a ring on that finger anymore. My wedding ring is sitting safely and all alone in my antique jewelry box on the top of my bedroom dresser with no real purpose anymore. I wore that ring on my left hand for a total of 2399 days and then one evening before bed in an anticlimactic moment, I quietly took it off and laid it to rest in a drawer. I had been dreading that day, but felt like the time had come to do so. I often find myself rubbing the spot my ring used to be over and over. It’s always a reminder of the loss I have experienced. Divorce has been the most painful thing I have ever walked through, yet like all “good suffering”it has become my teacher and God has shown me some very valuable lessons along the way.

Lesson #1- My identity is not in my marriage status, but in my Savior. This may seem obvious to a lot of you, but it didn’t take long for me to realize how much identity I had wrapped up in my own marriage. I loved being married. My husband and I had spent the majority of our marriage working along side each other as a team through missions and ministry. We were often taken as package deal even when we did work separate jobs. At the institute I taught at all my students loved meeting “Husband Dan” after classes. When Dan worked in a leasing office, I would visit and bring his coworkers cookies and treats. I am pretty sure they liked me more than him! When we went to weddings and talked to newlyweds we were the ones talking highly about how amazing marriage was. Being a wife was a great privilege to me. I was comfortable and felt secure in my marriage. Then one night as I was reading my two year old son a bedtime story , my husband walked in the door from an emergency staff meeting at the church. His eyes told me that something serious had happened and I needed to brace myself. I closed the book, we kissed our son goodnight and we walked to our bedroom my stomach in knots but with a heart full of faith. I truly believed whatever he was going to tell me would be alright because we would be in it together. We had faced some pretty rough stuff in our marriage already, so surely we could conquer whatever was to come together. My first thought was that he had lost his job or there was a death in our church, but nothing would have prepared me for the words that came out of his mouth next. ” I had an affair” he said as he looked me straight in my eyes with anguish and regret in his. It was like the words came out, hit my ears and bounced right back. I stared blankly, blinking hard, but no words came out on my side. He repeated himself. Once I regained the use of my tongue, I declared “well that’s just not true” so matter of factly. I must have misheard. As he shook his head and confirmed it was true, I continued saying “No that’s not true, you would never do that” over and over and I heard my voice getting stronger and stronger. I tried to convince him he was giving me a false confession but to no avail. The horror started to wash over me quickly and the floodwaters poured in as he confessed this affair was actually with a student. This was no affair at all, this was a crime. Maybe we weren’t in this together after all. My solid and secure marriage was slipping through my fingers like sand as I sat there shaking in disbelief.

We are all guilty at times of trusting a bit too much in the identities we have built for ourselves. Whether it be at work or home, we find our worth in what we do and the roles we play. We are wives, mothers, teachers, pastors, you fill in the blank for you. Often times we are not even aware we are doing it, until the moment comes when we lose it. The sudden death of a loved one, a job loss, or an unfaithful spouse may uproot your life completely. What we need is a sure foundation, in something, or someone who we can never lose. Jesus offers us identity in himself and his unchanging, unfailing, and unbelievable love. Everything else in this life will pass away. What earthly things do we find ourselves putting our hope and identity in today? Whatever it may be, it could be gone tomorrow. I have found that if I exchange my mistaken identity for gratitude, I will have a better foundation to build upon and a looser grip on this world. We can be grateful for a strong marriage, a great job, and healthy kids, but not place our worth in them. Our worth belongs in the hands of our Savior and Creator, the one who loves us most of all.

Lesson #2- My story does not disqualify me from the Kingdom of God, but is the very thing that God uses for his glory. Since graduating college, I had spent my life doing some sort of Christian ministry. I had been a missions student, a missionary in Mexico, a refugee advocate in Houston, a pastor’s wife and youth leader. I had a heart to see people’s lives changed by the love of Jesus . Serving the church was part of my daily rhythm in 2016. I spent up to 80% of my week in our church building coordinating our church ESL program, leading in women’s ministry and MOPs, discipling high school girls, making pancakes and coffee, teaching a Sunday school class, painting nursery walls, and fully supporting my husband as he pastored and led a youth group. I knew God was using me and I felt honored to be a part of building his Kingdom.

The story of my husband’s arrest hit the 5:00 Houston news and within minutes I had a multitude of texts pouring in. I had gone from loving pastor’s wife to the wife of a criminal in just a matter of hours. One of the first texts I received was from my friend Tracey. She wanted me to know that this was not my fault and thought I needed to hear those words immediately. She was right. In fact every single text that came in over the next days and weeks were messages of love, kindness and concern. However, in spite of all these messages of grace I was receiving, the shame still flooded into my soul. No I hadn’t committed any crime, yet it was still a big part of my story that I wanted to erase. For the next year I struggled with feeling like I had the word ” disqualified” stamped in the middle of my forehead. What would people think of me if they only knew my story? Who would respect me now I had a marriage that lasted less than a decade? How would I ever lead, teach, or disciple again? Won’t people who don’t know Jesus be turned away from Him by hearing of my husband’s failures thereby affirming their beliefs that Christianity is full of hypocrisy? Satan had put a big bullseye on my back and had hit me dead center. He was laughing loudly and it was hard to hear any other voices other than his some days.

Honestly it has taken a whole lot of counseling and prayer for me to drown out the voice of the enemy and walk in the truth of who God says I am. I know now that it’s usually the most broken pieces of our story that God will use for his greatest glory. It has been when I have stepped out and shared this hard tragic story he entrusted me with, that I have felt the most qualified. The Bible says we overcome the evil one by the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony (Revelation 12:11). No matter the specifics of your story, however shameful or broken you might feel, God wants you to know that you are more than qualified to to make an impact in his name. Just look in the gospels and see who Jesus uses to spread His good news message. He uses the Samaritan woman at the well who had five husbands. He uses a former demon possessed lunatic. He uses former prostitutes, hated tax collectors, and lowly fishermen. He uses the dead, the blind, the deaf and the lame. Isn’t it just ludicrous of us to think he couldn’t use our story today? The amazing Bob Goff says ” I used to think being a believer was enough, but now I know that Jesus wants us to participate, no matter what condition we are in.” So whatever condition you are in: anxious or depressed, single or married, hurting or healthy, let’s get in the game, look around and love someone. Let’s show up and share our stories of Jesus putting us back together and move forward in faith. I’m not disqualified and neither are you.

Father’s Day

Father’s Day is just around the corner and it causes me to stop and think about my dad. I have the kind of dad that never missed a basketball game in my 8 year playing career. When my mom worked weekends at the hospital, my dad made us fried potatoes and scrambled eggs for dinner, got us dressed and ready for church and put us to bed. My dad has shown himself a dedicated and loving father over the years. Even if he may not always be an expert in talking through feelings with his three daughters, he certainly knows how to show love and support by being there anyway. Being there, that’s what he’s pretty good at. In 2012, when I suffered a violent attack, my mom and dad immediately got in their car and drove the 1000 miles from central Illinois to Houston, Texas. My dad may not have known the right words to say, but he was there showing me his love and concern in simple ways such as driving me to the police station and making late night Whataburger runs. Just two years later, a trial date had been set and I had a 6 month old baby boy. How was I supposed to manage the stress of a trial and feel at peace with who was watching my baby all day? Well my dad hopped on a plane and flew down to help care for baby Judah for the week. The day he arrived, my trial was postponed and we ended up strolling through the Houston zoo taking in the gorillas and giraffes together instead. Did he complain? Not that I know of. He hadn’t wasted his money on that ticket because despite the lack of a trial I was once again assured that my dad would go to great lengths to be there for me. It was just two more short years after that when I found myself a single mom all of a sudden with no income and no options. Who was it that jumped on airplane immediately? My dad. My dad came to Texas in the morning, helped pack me and my boys up in the afternoon, and brought us back to Illinois that same night. We sat on that flight in silence. There were no words to be said, but he had made himself present. My dad’s not perfect, but he knows when to show up and that matters.

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My loving relationship with my dad is probably why I never really struggled much with viewing God as my heavenly Father. It came naturally to me to view my creator as also a dad who gives good gifts to his children. I have had that modeled to me my entire life. That also means I took that blessing for granted and didn’t give it much of second thought. It wasn’t until my own young sons became fatherless that my eyes were opened to the beauty and glorious redemption one can find in knowing that God is our good good father. I never would have imagined watching my boys grow up without a dad in their life, but that is what I have found myself doing over the last couple years and boy it’s hard to watch. My boys were just babies when their dad was arrested. They have no memories of a life with their dad in it. I can remember vividly being in a Walmart last year and Lucas, who was just 2, pointing out different men and asking ” Is that my daddy?” for each of them. Oh how my heart broke at his lack of understanding in who his father was. Judah, who is now 5 years old, desperately tries to hold onto the memories he and his daddy had together. He repeats the memories I have shared with him with such pride. “Daddy and I played hide-and-seek together” or ” Daddy used to take me to work with him in Texas“. He loves his daddy despite all the wrongs done and the distance between them. As I write this blog post, both boys are drawing pictures for their dad and competing for whose picture Daddy will love the most. They teach me grace and forgiveness daily.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. Of course I have been plenty angry too. It’s not fair that my boys don’t have a dad to play with them and throw them high into the air. It’s not fair that they won’t get the chance to feel the embrace of a father for most of their childhood. This brings tears and an ache to my heart that I never imagined possible. However, this is when I must look up to our Father in heaven and praise him for what my kids do have. There has been a glimpse of redemption in seeing the relationship that has formed between my dad and my boys since moving in with my parents. Grandpa has become one of their bestest buddies. My dad has once again showed up not just for me, but for them. He has changed diapers , fed them breakfast, tucked them into bed, said bedtime prayers, read books, taken them swimming and trick or treating and bought them plenty of happy meals and ice cream. Nowadays, he drives them around our small town in his golf cart and makes them feel like the most important kids in town. I am so grateful that my dad has stepped up to be a father figure in my kids lives, but I know he cannot entirely fulfill their need of a father. The truth is that only our great God can do that. God is the only perfect Father. He knows what’s best for my kids and I must daily trust him with their hearts. When I first became a single mom and the grief was immense, I wasn’t always sure how to pray so I would just recite the Lord’s Prayer multiple times a day. As we all probably know it begins with “Our Father in heaven“. This is the primary way that Jesus teaches us to address the holy and sovereign God of the universe. Oh how these words washed over me and a new gratitude lept in my heart for this truth. What comfort it is for this single mama that God is our Father, a true father to the fatherless. He will always be there when everyone else fails them. He is there lavishing his great love on them. 1 John 3:1 says ” See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And this is what we are!” This love goes way beyond anything an earthly father could offer. I recently heard Louie Giglio describe God not as a reflection of our earthly father, but a perfection of him. My prayer is that my sons will truly know God and that their faith will surpass my own because they will understand how valuable it is that God is our Father and calls us his children. They won’t take this for granted like I have done in the past. I pray they will find great joy and belonging in knowing they are a part of the family of God and find their identity and rest in Him. If your kids are going through life without their dad, I hope you will find comfort in these truths today as well. You are not alone.

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My dad took my boys trick or treating last year.

I am also keenly aware that for many people reading this, you too may have a hole where a father should be. I may not know your story, but I know that Father’s Day can be an challenging day for you too. Maybe you haven’t felt the embrace of a loving father in far too long. Maybe you have never known the love of a father on this side of heaven. Or maybe worst of all you have suffered pain and abuse at the hands of your own father. I am sorry and my heart breaks for you. My prayer for you is that you will read the words of 1 John 3:1 and take in the word lavish. God doesn’t just love us, but he lavishes his love on us with extravagant, luxurious, and grand actions. His most obvious display of this kind of love was sending Jesus to dwell among us to display his compassion and mercy and to rescue us from a broken life without hope. He offers us an eternal joy that outlasts it all. Jesus tells us in John 14:6-7 ” I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will also know my Father.” It doesn’t take long for us to read through the gospels and see the way that Jesus loved lavishly, especially to those who were broken, grieving and lost. He reaches out to those vulnerable to the hurts of this world. So I invite you on Father’s day this year, when the pain is deep and the loss is obvious, to look up and find the love that your heavenly Father is lavishing on you today. Look into the Word and find his promises are true and know that he will never leave you or abandon you. Look around and see how he is always providing and giving good gifts to his children. Sometimes you just have to look a bit harder through all those tears, but I assure you he’s there. He shows up and that matters.

I

I am a Writer

I have been many things in my life. I have been a student, a carnival worker (oh yes!) , a retail associate, a missionary, an ESL Instructor, a pastor’s wife, a mom, a single mom, a daughter, a friend, a hot mess, and the list could go on! However, I have never embraced any identity of being a writer. Well, that is changing today. Today I declare that I am a writer. Throughout my life I have found joy in writing. I was the strange kid who got excited when it was time to write papers for English class, well as long as it was something I was passionate about anyway! I made my way through college writing monotonously about communication and having no direction whatsoever. After I became a missionary, I saw beauty in people’s stories and also in how God was weaving my own. I experienced God like never before amid the breathtaking views of the Oaxacan mountains and surrounded by the extravagant hospitality of the Oaxacan people. I found myself daily in a hammock with an open journal on my lap furiously writing in an attempt to capture all I was experiencing. Writing easily became my greatest hobby while in Mexico, alongside eating street tacos and tamales of course!

Moving to Houston, Texas made writing a bit easier for me as well. I was on a brand new adventure experiencing cultures I had never known. It was exciting and I never could have dreamed of how much God would grow me as a follower of him. He put opportunity after opportunity in front of me to experience. I met people from countries all over the world, even ones I had never even heard of. ( I apologize to my Eritrean and Bhutanese friends for my lack of geography knowledge). I drank an unruly amount of tea in homes all over Houston. We spent many days eating and celebrating holidays with African Muslim friends. In a wild set of events I was able to fly across the Atlantic ocean to have dinner with their family back in Senegal and realized just how small the world really is. I spent week after week visiting a Turkish mosque, HIndu temple, Buddhist temple and eating the best food in Chinatown. I lived among refugees who had survived such unbelievably difficult circumstances. And as much as I tried to serve them, they almost always served me more. I became a student of culture and faith, and I poured out my lessons into multiple journals to be read by me when I doubted God’s faithfulness and love.

Breaking fast for Ramadan with Senegalese Friends

In the fall of 2012, I opened my journal on the floor of the living room of my townhouse and wrote to God about my concern of not having an authentic faith. I scribbled down my desire to be found faithful even if suffering were to come my way. Just a few short weeks later while serving in my ESL classroom and community outreach room, I was violently attacked, raped and I nearly lost my life. This changed my world forever. Word of my attack quickly grew from my Houston community, to back home in Illinois, and then to friends and family around the nation. I received a great outpouring of love and support from so many including complete strangers. In my personal life, I was experiencing my first real taste of true heartache and pain but developing an incredible dependence on Jesus like I never knew possible. It was overwhelming and raw and I kept feeling the nudge the share what I was learning. This was much different than the writing I had done before, but I still found a voice and started to post my journey of healing on a blog. It was vulnerable and a bit weak, but people seemed to be listening. Maybe there was something to this writing thing.

Over the years, I have written about finding joy and hope in some impossible situations. I have tried my best at being authentic and brave, but unsure of how it was coming through. My life took another turn at the end of 2016 when my beloved husband, a youth pastor, was arrested and I became a single mom overnight . I lost my best friend, my co-parent, my husband, and my life and community as I had known it in Houston. My family became the top story of the 5:00 news. This was not what I pictured my life to be. People were above and beyond generous and kind, but I felt eyes on me. How would I respond to this? I heard Satan laughing loudly like he had hit the bullseye and had won the grand prize. There was no good in this story that I could see. My voice was extinguished in a single day and I felt disqualified to write even a sentence. I went through a pretty dark and silent period, but it was writing each and every day in a journal that brought life and healing to my heart. I had a secret place to put my feelings and gut wrenching prayers to the Lord. Writing about this part of my journey has been the most difficult of all, probably because the pain has been the deepest. I have taken baby steps in sharing a bit of the process that is leading to my healing through writing publicly but let’s be honest it’s ridiculously scary to do so!

As an enneagram 9, I have always struggled with finding my voice or wondering if it even matters at all. “Who cares what I think” is the refrain that has been sung in my head since childhood and is singing loud and merrily as I type this blog post. I am choosing to silence that voice in my head and turn up the voice in my heart that tells me that I do have something to share. That the story God has entrusted me with is worthwhile and meaningful not just to my own spiritual journey but to those who are struggling in theirs as well. Emily P. Freeman in her book “The Next Right Thing” discusses how we all love new beginnings, but we don’t love being a beginner. However it is okay to ‘be a beginner” sometimes. It’s so easy for me to deny the identity of a writer, even though it’s always been in me because I think of myself as a beginner and I don’t love that feeling. So today I am starting something new and calling myself a writer. I don’t know what successes or failures are up ahead for me, but I am committing to being brave and vulnerable. As Brene Brown says “daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you’re feeling and to have the hard conversations.” So that’s what I hope this blog will be about. What is it that’s inside of you, nudging you to step out and be courageous? Is there something in you that you have been too fearful to explore and risk failure? Maybe it’s writing just like me and you have a story to share or maybe it’s completely different. Whatever it is, I invite you to join me on a journey of becoming a beginner and stepping out in something new. We will see together where God takes us.