May 12, 2008

Beauty from Ashes


My friend, DidiLyn, is hosting a bloggy carnival today. It is called "Tell Me Your Story." You're invited to hop on over and read how God has made a difference in the lives of others.

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have some sort of relationship with God. My amazing Christian parents raised us in the church and in the ways of the Lord. Realizing the blessing that is, I thank God regularly for giving me such a rich spiritual heritage.

I came to Christ at age 8. It was a beautiful spring day. My mom stayed home with my older sister who was sick, and I went to church with Daddy. Something clicked in my heart that day. My former thinking of "Mom and Dad are going to Heaven, and I’ll get there on their coattails" no longer made sense. It had to be mine. Mine. And it had to be real. So I made that choice in a quiet moment, and made my faith my own. Dad mentioned it to Mom who was thrilled but rather surprised I hadn’t waited to share this monumental and life-changing moment with the WHOLE family instead of when half of the family was at home. In my own little way, I tried to explain. "It didn’t seem like a good idea to make God wait." She nodded with a knowing smile. I spent that afternoon on the swing in our backyard, marveling at God’s beautiful creation and my new place in it.

The blessing of growing up in a Bible-believing, Bible-teaching church was never something I took for granted. The pastor at my home church was a wonderful teacher, and his love for God’s Word was contagious. He taught us the importance of learning the Scriptures and hiding them in our hearts. How glad I am he did that!

In my mid-20s, I found myself in the deepest, darkest depression. I’m not talking "the blues" here. I’m talking about a pit of despair that was so deep, I truly believed I’d never get out. I lost my job, my home, my desire to keep on living - everything. At 25, I moved back home with my parents and spent each morning of the next two years literally trying to find the courage to get.out.of.bed.

I couldn’t. If I could, I didn’t want to. I was paralyzed. And then the panic struck... literally. Panic disorder had become a reality in my life, and debilitating panic attacks were my constant companion. I wanted out of my own skin; I wanted to be ANYWHERE but where I was.

In spite of all I knew about God, I couldn’t "feel" Him in my life. I couldn’t sense His presence, and I couldn’t remember what it was like to walk with Him. There was no joy, no laughter, only tears. My own personal angel mom spent many nights on her knees praying over me and trying to help me just hold on. When I’d wake her at 2:00 a.m. in a panic, she would pray with me. No, she’d pray for me. I couldn’t pray. She’d say, "Whenever you face insurmountable odds or an impossible situation, say to yourself, ‘for THIS I have Jesus.’" I couldn’t. I couldn’t call His name.

She’d tell me that "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." (2 Timothy 1:7). She reminded me to say, "When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You." (Psalm 56:3) She’d pray over me, "Perfect love casts out all fear." (1 John 4:18) She'd encourage me to recite Lamentations 3:21-24 which says, "This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The LORD'S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. 'The LORD is my portion,' says my soul, 'Therefore I have hope in Him.'" She told me nothing ever stays the same, including God's mercies - they're new every morning! Those were all truths I knew, but I just couldn’t make them real. She reminded me regularly that all the promises of God in Him are YES, and in Him AMEN, to the glory of God through us. (2 Corinthians 1:20). I told her I couldn't imagine ever being "normal" again and ever being happy again.

And then her prayers changed.

"For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart." (Jeremiah 29:11-13)

And there was hope. Hope. It glimmered in the distance, but it was there.

Slowly but surely, the balm of His peace soothed my broken spirit. And He sent a song. Wayne Watson wrote it and sang it right to my wounded heart. Wayne had experienced a journey similar to mine, and God gave him a song. My song.

After a concert at my church several years later, I had the privilege of sharing my story with Wayne. Our tears comingled on the tops of our hands as we prayed together in thanksgiving for new life, new joy, new hope. Jesus met us both where we were - again and anew - and He healed our secret scars. He is the Friend of a wounded heart.

In the decade following the emergence from that pit, the Lord taught me so much. Sure, I made mistakes and wrong choices, but I didn't ever wander further than His reach. My longing for a godly husband grew deeper with each passing year, and I began to wonder if I'd ever know the joy of being married or remain single for the rest of my life. I began to study contentment and what God had to say about that. I began to reside in 1 Timothy 6, especially verse 6. "But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment." If God said it in His Word, it was and is true. The focus of my pursuit changed. I began to pursue godliness. (I'm still not there, but the journey is worth it.)

What came next can only be described as miraculous.

I never had an older brother, though I always wanted one. God sent Ben into my life. Ben "became" that brother I never had. A deep and abiding friendship was born, and to this day, I count Ben as one of my very dearest friends. He has a love for evangelism and working in the most unlikely places to share the hope of the Gospel. He got involved in prison ministry. "How nice for him," I thought. NOT my thing. Then he began working with a ministry focusing on juveniles in incarceration. Teenagers in prison? Really? 'Cuz that sounds scary!

After months of his gentle nudging and encouragement, I finally agreed to go on a prison ministry weekend event with him. I was Remember that little girl who was paralyzed with panic? Where do you suppose would be the most frightening place on earth for someone with panic disorder? PRISON! You want to take me into a cold, sterile, concrete building surrounded by razor wire, and through multiple locking gates and doors, and then you're gonna leave me in there? Are you new here? I have panic attacks. I can't do that.

"When I am afraid, I will put my trust in You." "God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind." "I can do ALL things through Christ Who strengthens me." It all came flooding back. I inhaled and exhaled. I whispered a prayer. And then another. And then.... I walked into the prison, turned around to face the slamming metal gate and hear it lock. I inhaled and exhaled and realized for the first time that's God's promises are, in fact, yes and amen. HE had enabled me to do it. And so the day began. What an amazing day it was. I had a front row seat to watch the miracles of God unfold.

Ben never had to ask me again. Any time a prison ministry event was happening, I was the first to sign up. I LOVED it! I loved it because I was reminded every single time that I am a living, breathing, walking, talking testimony of God's power. Only He could enable a panic-stricken girl to thrive inside prison walls. I loved it because He was using the darkest days of my life to encourage others. I loved it because I could say with conviction, "I am here because God has made a difference in my life."

Ben had a frequent roommate on those weekend events, and Ben introduced me to him on my first trip. For several years, I thought he was a nice guy with a huge heart for the Lord. He was cute, too, and he had that awesome dog. (Dog lovers are easily attracted to other dog lovers.) For years, we visited on prison ministry trips and worked on occasional projects together. I realized my respect for him was growing with each passing day as I watched him branch out and a form a ministry of his own using his dog to demonstrate the relationship we can have with our Master by using the relationship he had with his extraordinary dog. On June 24, 2000 on the campus of the juvenile prison in Beaumont, Texas, something quickened in my spirit. And I knew. I knew. He was God's promise to me. He would become my beloved, my gift from God, my husband.

God had consoled me in my mourning and given me beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. He had made Himself known in every part of my life, even in my deepest pain.

Les and I have been married for six years. Ben stood as our best man on the day we wed. Now under the umbrella of the ministry God has given us, Les and I lead teams of volunteers - including precious Ben - into juvenile prisons to be living, breathing testimonies of just how God can give beauty among the ashes.


DidiLyn said...

That was indescribably beautiful. I am so happy, and humbled that you shared this story, YOUR story with us. What a great God we serve! I loved, love, loved this.
Thank you so much for being so open and blessing us all.

Anonymous said...

wow... you know me - I had to run put on a tee shirt before I got mascara tears all over my nice 'Stein-Mart' professional work-person jacket! Our God is an AWESOME God, He reigns over heaven above - with wisdom, power and love, our God is an AWESOME God!!! Flying back from Cincicnnati Sunday we flew above the clouds. I could see the sunset, the clouds like sea billows rolled and honestly, I waited to hear the trumpet and heavenly voices singing "BEHOLD HE COMES, RIDING ON THE CLOUDS..." I took pictures. I learned that was sang Sunday at church. Oh, how my heart aches for those that don't have eternal hope. Love you, thanks for sharing!

Amy Guerino said...

Wayne Watson brings back spiritual milestone memories for me as well. Thank you for including the link to the is so powerful. It seems to cement a truth we must hold onto when life around us screams lies!

Thank you for being open, vulnerable about your panic attacks. As I have extended family members that struggle with emotional issues it keeps me longing for the day Christ returns.

Stacey said...

Incredible testimony. I always love hearing a testimony of someone who grew up surrounded by Christian love. It is so awesome to hear how that was learned from an early age and stuck with you. Gives us hope that our children DO hear what we're saying and teaching them. They're also watching what we do so it is wonderful to know there are people like you out there setting such a great example. Loved your honesty. Blessings to you!! Stacey

SweetPea said...

I’ve come to your site via Sheryl’s The Perch. I read her latest piece last week but something drew me to check the comments as I checked her site for updates. I skimmed through them and came to yours. As you spoke of your family’s big news…I dreaded hearing about someone else’s joy while I’m still in this lonely pit of mine. Then you spoke of your sister’s husband leaving her. I thought not again…not another divorce story (having recently gone through my own). You proceeded to say “however” which is always good but again I thought you were going to say she found a new wonderful Christian man. (Again, not what my heart longed to here). But, oh to God’s wonderful glory, you said she and her husband are reconciling. Praise Jesus!!! How amazing after 17 years. I pray that I don’t have to wait that long. I don’t know why some marriages aren’t reconciled at all but I am truly rejoicing with you over this miracle from God!

I’ve read your story and it is truly amazing and beautiful. Thank you for sharing your heart.

Sheryl said...

Hi there. First of all, I've just read your story and it is sure is amazing! God is amazing! Thank you for being so open and real, many people will be touched your words. I know I am

Also, thank you for stopping by my blog and for your encouraging words. I am praying for restoration of my family but in the meantime I'm trusting God.

I will be back again, your heart for the Lord is an inspiration to me.


KC said...

What a wonderful Testimony..
Thank you for sharing it..

GoSuze! said...

Wow...that is a great story....I knew a lot of it, but I've only heard it in little sips! Seeing the whole testimony at once is powerful. Thank you!

Heather said...

That is really a wonderful touching story! What great scripture to bring you out of where you were. What blessings have been brought into your life!

Thank you for sharing.