Saturday, July 23, 2011

I Will Not Give That Which Costs Me Nothing

I finished up my journey through II Samuel again this morning, and as always, my heart & mind were attuned, looking for inspiration in the words.  I found that inspiration in verse 24, just as the chapter was ending…

II Samuel 24:24  And the king said unto Araunah, “Nay; but I will surely buy it (the threshing floor) at a price:  neither will I offer burnt offerings (the oxen Araunah has just offered to give David as a gift) unto the Lord my God of that which doth cost me nothing…”

In a rather self-centered way, I suppose, I began to think about myself and sacrifice.  What specifically came to mind was a prayer that I began to pray in earnest in the summer of 2006.  That summer, I was a happily (or, at least I thought we were happy) married mother of a four year old daughter, expecting my second child.  I was also acutely aware that I wanted something MORE – something beyond what I had attained in God.  I wanted to live up to my potential – I wanted to use the gifts He had given me.  I wanted MORE.  So, I began to pray, asking God to use me, whatever the cost.  I asked Him to strip away anything that was hindering me.  I asked Him to mold me, so that I could reach others.   I had no idea what that request would cost…

Stripping away meant the loss of the family I had wanted.   It meant the loss of my health.   It meant the loss of security.  It meant acknowledging some painful truths that God had mercifully hidden from me for a long time.  I lost my marriage, not through my own choice, but through a choice that was made for me.  I lost my health, through a series of automobile accidents & a bout with cancer.  I lost my sense of belonging, because suddenly as a “single mother,” I didn’t fit into the culture of my community quite so well anymore.  And then, when I thought I had been given a second chance at happiness & family, I lost that too.  I’ve written enough about the pain of 2010 that I don’t need to rehash the highlights, but I can say this:  Four years after praying to be used, I was sitting in a pile of ashes wondering exactly what I had left to give. 

See, to be used of God is not elevating to the individual.  It doesn’t make you feel like Angelina Jolie on the red carpet.  Truth is, being molded by God into a useable vessel – particularly when you have prayed to be used MIGHTILY – hurts.  Badly.  For a long time.   And trust me on this too, when people are observing your situation, they are NOT thinking, “Wow, she is really being used of the Lord!  I can’t wait to see her come through this and do something great!”  Nope, they are usually thinking something more along the lines of, “Wow, I don’t know what sin she committed that made God so angry, but I guess it just goes to show you that you reap what you sow!”

Yep, to be molded is painful, but I think (maybe, just maybe) I’m finally far enough out of the valley that I can see some landmarks, and reading that verse of scripture today inspired me to go & check out my journals from 2006-2007, written before I knew just how far I was going to fall. 

June 24, 2007:  Lord, give me the tools to help me work for you.  I want to win souls – starting with my kids & expanding to the whole world.  Give me what I need to do that. 

In 2007, I had never spoken in public beyond my classroom.  Testifying in church filled me with fear, and witnessing was something I was always a little too intimidated to do.  Four years later, I have addressed church groups & school groups, ranging from 20 people to 250, speaking about faith, endurance, the goodness of the Lord, and other topics from scripture.  Through pain, sorrow, & faith, He gave me what I needed to do what I could.

August 16, 2007: Awaken my musical gift.  Let it be restored in me.

In 2007, I was really just asking that God make me a better, more anointed singer in my local church.  In 2011, He has inspired me to write around 20 songs.  Four of them I’ve recorded to Youtube.  No, none have been professionally recorded, but they are making their way to churches in other areas.  Who knows what the next four years will bring?

September 3, 2007: Lord, deliver me from my fear of the cancer & heal me completely for Your glory.

In 2007, I was awaiting the first round of treatment for cancer.  In 2011, I am four years cancer-free, after only ONE round of treatment.  He is still a healer.

April 26, 2008:  Oh, when will we realize that we are not alone!  We are in His hands.  Take the step!  Deliverance lies just ahead.

I have learned what it is to be truly alone.  I know the joy – and the pain – of heading up a family by myself.  I know the feeling of a silent & empty home when the children are away.  And yet…I have also learned that I am never REALLY alone.  Never completely.  I know that He completed me long ago-that He has a plan to meet my every need before I ever know that need is there.  My job is simple:  to trust Him to do just that.

I know what you are wondering, dear readers.  If I knew then what I know now, would I have started praying that prayer back in 2006?  If I knew the degree of sacrifice & the depths of pain I would have to endure to be molded by Him, to be shaped by Him, to be used of Him… If I knew, would I pray it anyway?  I will give you the only answer I have:  I’m glad I didn’t know.   And I’m glad that His grace has been sufficient, in spite of the pain of sacrifice.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Childless...Waiting on a Promise

The word “childless” has a certain negative connotation all its own.  I have been revisiting II Samuel again (as I do around this time every year), and I noticed, for the first time I think, just how often the condition of childlessness appeared in these early books of the Old Testament.   Being “childless” has one inherent meaning:  waiting on a promise that has not arrived.   

Perhaps the most famous of childless couples is Abram & Sarai.  Abram had been promised that his descendants would outnumber the stars, and yet… here he was old, with no child.  Sarai was none too young herself, and though she too knew of the promise, she decided that perhaps God was waiting on her to come up with an idea to help out.  We all know the result of her brilliant plan – a conflict that rages on so many thousands of years later – but what of her childless state? When the promise finally came – in GOD’S WAY, in HIS time – it was one little boy named Laughter who fathered the nation that would change the world.

Rachel cried out to God in her childless state, voicing her frustrations to her husband.  Her waiting finally ended with the arrival of her first son.  Joseph represented the hope of Israel, for without his journey through God’s will from the prison to the palace, Israel would have been extinguished by famine.  The birth of her second son Benjamin ended her life, and in keeping, Benjamin’s descendants proved to be agents of destruction.

In Judges 13, we learn that Manoah’s wife was barren, until God sent a special boy who carried his power in his obedience to a seemingly arbitrary rule about his hair. Samson, the child of the promise, was a man who was swayed too easily by his emotions (I see more than mere lust in his motives), but in the end, he used his death to bring about destruction upon the enemies of God.

What does all this mean?  Well, thus far, we can determine that there is something special about the birth of a child –a promise, if you will – to one who has been declared “childless.”

In I Samuel, we find the story of Hannah, broken before the Lord in a prayer that has no words, crying out to God, begging for her promise.  And then, Samuel was born.  The first child of the promise was the beginning of the bloodline.  The second child of the promise was to protect the chosen people through a time of famine.  The third child of the promise was a warrior, who through his weakness and in spite of temptation, rose up to deliver his people from their oppressors.  And now, this Samuel, another child of promise, will remind his people of their loyalty to Jehovah and will anoint the first two kings of Israel…

By all rights, the child born of two kings should have reigned, but Michal’s refusal to let go of her bitterness, her refusal to rise above the pain her life had dealt her, left her childless…II Samuel recounts her story, one of the Bible’s saddest.  How many do we know like Michal, who have allowed the bitterness of their past to blot out their futures?

Then in II Kings, we find the story of the Shunamite woman, who after waiting her whole life, received her promise by way of the prophet.  And when that promise was ripped away from her, she rose up, saddled her donkey, and rode out boldly, proclaiming, my child will NOT die!  Her refusal to give in revived the dead promise, and with the prayers of the prophet, the child lived again.

And then the blessed story of Elisabeth, who in the book of Luke, has waited so long for a child that she has given up hope…when the promise arrives.  And that promise, John the Baptist, has a very special work to do, for he will announce to the world that the promise embodied within all of scripture, the hope of all mankind, lives and walks among us, if we will only recognize Him.  He will prepare the way of Christ.

So what of all this talk of childlessness, of promises unfulfilled?  Simple enough.  Are you waiting for a promise?  Have you waited long enough that hope has started to fade?  Do you feel as hopeless as these men and women who longed for the birth of a child, seemingly in vain?  The message is there for you in scripture:  HOLD ON.  For the child that is borne out of childlessness…the promise that is borne from the ashes… is particularly blessed, for it is the very progeny of faith, and its legacy will reverberate throughout the pages of time.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Timing Is Everything...

Timing really IS everything.  I’ve always been fascinated by time.  I’ve come to believe it’s a convenience God created with us in mind, to help understand why things are as they are and how our actions have consequences.

But if timing is everything, then how do we know when the time is “right”?  I’ve been playing a waiting game with the Lord for a while.  It’s been pretty frustrating, honestly.  I hate waiting.  But looking back, I can see that God has truly used the time to heal my broken places and bind the wounds that life has inflicted.  But now that the bones are mended and the cuts have left only faint scars, my mind starts to wonder… When will it be MY time?

When is the “accepted time” to seek Him?   The verses referencing an accepted time all have one thing in common.  Trouble.  Flood waters, the mire, the pit, when people hate you… that is the time when He should be sought.  That is the time He may be found.  He knows our needs, and He knows our pain.  His divine hearing is attuned to our cries, and when we are in the proverbial flooded, miry pit, He will hear, answer and come through.  He has certainly done that for me.  Now, I’m ready for my song of deliverance.

Yesterday evening, as I was praying (and, in all honesty, maybe, just a little bit…whining to God) about time again, He sat me down for some study time.  In looking up verses on “accepted time,” I found all the references to fear and trembling, to rescue and deliverance through times of pain, and I asked God yet again… But when is MY ACCEPTED TIME? I’ve been waiting.  How long, Lord?

Patience, my child.  A few verses later, I found a gift…the only reference to an “accepted time” in the New Testament.  It was in II Corinthians 6:2: “For He saith, I have heard thee in a time accepted, and in the day of salvation have I succored thee: behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” 

Yes, God’s timing is perfect, if you are brave enough to wait… and I believe so strongly that before too many more days have passed, He will whisper in my ear, “Now…”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

I Am NOT Irrelevant

My third revelation of the New Year was the simplest, but it has sparked an amazing amount of momentum within my life.  It is simply this:  I am not irrelevant.  It can often feel just a bit confining to be alone. That perspective is skewed at best, but anyone who has eaten dinner at a restaurant alone, left the sanctuary of their church alone, arrived home to a house that is empty, or spent Valentines’ Day avoiding all retail & media outlets knows what I mean… in a world built for “two,” being “one” makes you feel more like “half.”

One of the greatest shocks I received after becoming a single mother was that I was suddenly an enemy of the movement I had long championed:  the “family values” group.  Suddenly, I represented everything they were afraid of, everything they hated.  I was the woman who had failed at marriage … not once, but twice.  I was the single mother whose kids were doomed for felonious misadventure… I was THAT girl…

I learned just how strong that stigma was on a rainy Sunday morning.  A married gentleman saw me with my two children – one of whom was not yet walking – and he offered to go get my car and pull it up under the portico so that I wouldn’t have to take the children out in the rain.  I gratefully accepted.  It wasn’t until he pulled up in my car and handed me back the keys that I caught a glimpse of his wife’s face.  She was … unhappy, to say the least.  I’m afraid that the poor man probably got a tongue-lashing on the way home, and I probably got labeled as the woman who was trying to steal her husband away.  After that incident, I declined all offers of help; it was just simpler that way.   Clearly, none of the married couples were going to be asking me out to eat with them anymore either, so I had to set off on a new quest:  redefine where I fit as a unicycle in this world that prefers bicycles built for two.

That answer did not come easily.  Truthfully, no one else knew where I was supposed to go either.  In my church, I tended (and still tend) to get shuffled between the youth group (clearly, at almost 36, I’m a little too old for that) and the elderly widows (love those ladies, but they have great-grandchildren that are older than my kids).  Since I didn’t really fit, I chose option C – fade into the background.  Worked pretty well, for the most part, but I didn’t feel connected with my church.  Didn’t feel connected anywhere.  There was a very real part of me that wanted to seek out a new relationship just so that I felt like I belonged in a church, at a grocery store, or just generally on the planet.  That would be a really bad reason to pursue a relationship, so I needed another direction.

On that New Year’s Eve-Day dawning, God had already told me that my dream wasn’t dead.  He had already told me that my home was not broken.  The final revelation was where I “fit.”  In those early hours, I saw that while I was alone, He was personally molding me, making me into who He wanted me to become.  And just as He was shaping me, He was shaping my place in the world.  I was right about one thing – I didn’t fit…yet.  Both my place and my character were still in formation, under His guidance.

As my eyes were opened, I began to see was just how many people were rocking along in the same boat that I inhabited.  There were a LOT of us.  We were just invisible.  I began to reach out to others, sharing my story, listening to theirs.  What I learned is that many wounded people leave the very place they need to be – the church – because they feel isolated and out of place.

The statistics on marriage and divorce are rather staggering.  When you add in widowhood and those who never marry, there is a very large percentage of the population that isn’t in a traditional family.  It is completely unreasonable that those people – such a huge number – should all feel inconsequential to the body of Christ.  This is particularly true when you look at one glaring fact:  the author of the vast majority of the New Testament was a single man.  If Paul could be that effective on his own, well, why not me too?

So my quest in this year is not to find “the one.”  I’m not looking for anybody to “complete me.”  Jesus did that.  I’m looking for every opportunity that I can to spread the gospel, to magnify & glorify the name of Christ, to reach the unreachable & touch the untouchable.  I’m putting “hands & feet” on my faith.  I am not irrelevant to the body of Christ.  In fact, I’m pretty relevant all around, and I’m moving forward.  Anybody want to come along?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

My Home is NOT Broken

Time for the second “truth” I came to know on New Year’s Eve 2010. 

From the time my parents divorced when I was 13, I had to live with a label: I was from a “broken home.” Words cannot express to you how much I came to hate that label.

At 14, I went to my first (and only) youth camp as a resident of the dormitory. I will grant you that I was not the easiest teenager. My favorite thing to do in any discussion, whether it was scriptural or social, was to ask, “Why?” and “On what authority do you base that?” Most of that was just my nature. I still ask those questions pretty regularly, and they have made me a better human being. To paraphrase one of my favorite plays (The Miracle Worker), “Obedience without understand is a kind of blindness, too.” For every regulation placed before me, I wanted to know WHY I was expected to obey.

One night, after we were supposed to be sleeping, I was lying there staring at the ceiling when I overheard a conversation between two of the counselors: “You really just have to excuse Alesha. She’s from a broken home, you know.” The end of my stay at that youth camp is part of family legend now and doesn’t really matter for purposes of this story, but the bottom line is that I was very deeply wounded by that conversation. They had labeled me defective, and there wasn’t much I could do to redeem myself.

When I married, I was determined that my home would NOT be broken. My family was NOT going to be defective, but as I wrote about last time, some prayers aren’t answered the way we want . . .

So, when it became clear that the traditional nuclear family was not going to be what I would have, I went looking for help at (where else?) the Christian bookstore. There were several shelves about “praying for your marriage” and “making a better marriage” and “healthy homes start with healthy marriages”… where were the books on what to do when you were on your own? I found them, though I didn’t buy them. There was one-third of a shelf (on the bottom, in the corner) dedicated to single parents. The covers depicted mostly women, looking like they were facing death, dismemberment and worse. I wanted hope. I got the message from skimming the contents: survival should be your hope. You won’t thrive. Things will be bad, terrible even. But eventually the kids will grow up and if you don’t mess it up any worse, maybe they won’t be cursed with their own broken home. That is, if they don’t follow the statistics and go to jail by age 9.

I am exaggerating, of course, but the material available WAS pretty bleak. I did finally get a good book to help (thanks Sis Mary Lynn Warren!!!!), but it was from a friend, because it had long been out of print. I didn’t want to survive. I wanted to THRIVE!!! But how to do that in a “broken home”?

I had rebuilding for a while on New Year’s Eve, and for the most part I was feeling pretty positive, but I was still wrestling with the idea of my “broken”, defective home. I HATED it. Why should my home be broken and defective? Why should my kids wear that label I had hated so much? It wasn’t fair.

And that’s when that still small voice came with the simplest answer: “Your home is NOT broken. I am there.” Wow, what a revelation! As often happens when God speaks into my spirit, I was speechless. So there came the voice again: “Go ahead. Say it, ‘My home is NOT broken.’” Again, I was dumbfounded. It couldn’t really be that simple, could it?

But yes, yes it really could. I said it quietly, sort of embarrassed. Since then, I’ve been saying a lot more loudly. Just because I’m a divorced mother does NOT MEAN MY HOME IS BROKEN. My children and I have built a very happy, loving home. We have fun. We laugh. We are very close. They aren’t statistics; they are happy, thriving children.

So why is this important? Because I think it’s time we stop accepting the lie that divorce is a death sentence for a family. It’s time to stop accepting the lie that children are doomed to failure because their parents’ marriages failed. We are not broken homes. We are families. We might look a little different, but we are NOT BROKEN.

As a child, I didn’t know what to say to those camp counselors. As an adult, I know what I might say. “I didn’t ask, ‘Why?’ because my home was broken. I asked it because I wanted to understand why I live as I do. Why I believe as I do. I needed you to give me answers, and while you didn’t, I found someone who did. And by the way, my home – the one I had with my Mom, my sister, and my grandmother – it wasn’t broken either. If you want to see the proof, look what I have become… MY HOME IS NOT BROKEN.”

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Living Another Kind of Dream

I began 2011 in Gatlinburg, Tennessee on vacation with my favorite people – my kids and my parents. Those who know me well know just how difficult 2010 was for me. It represented the death of a dream and a massive sense of failure, along with another really public betrayal. I spent most of the year thinking, “Haven’t I done this once already? Wasn’t that enough? Really, again?” But, the year was ending well, and while the rest of my family was sleeping shortly after the New Year dawned, I was up, asking the Lord about a thing or two. There were three very important truths I learned that night, and I’m ready to write about the first one.

I was 13 when my parents’ strained marriage finally unraveled completely. I was devastated on many levels, but the primary reason was because I had prayed so long and hard that God would save my family. I had begged and pleaded with God to turn my Dad around, cause him to change his life, change his mind, to MAKE him want to be part of our family again. I listened intently to every minister, read every Bible story, and I tried everything I could, from special offerings to Gideon-style fleeces. I bargained with God in my 13 year old wisdom. I promised to be a VERY good girl, if He would only save my family.

He didn’t.

From age 13 until adulthood, I was brought up by my mom, a hard-working, dedicated and wonderful single mother who gave me the best I could have needed. She worked very hard to give my sister and I every advantage, and she dedicated herself to building a happy home. We weren’t unhappy, but within myself, I knew that I wanted a REAL family, with a Dad. I wanted a Dad who would show up for my piano recitals, and my high school graduation. I wanted a Dad who would be proud of me, not from a distance, but right up close. I wanted a REAL family, not a single-parent one. I’d also taken to listening to Dr. Laura on the radio, and she was very fond of saying that you got two chances at the family relationship: the one you are born into, and the one you build. So I decided right then that I was going to build a REAL family – one that wasn’t a single-parent disappointment. And nothing would stop me or stand in my way. I was pretty convinced that my will-power alone could keep it together no matter what.

It couldn’t.

Flash-forward a whole lot of years and two divorces. The dream of a REAL family felt pretty dead. I’d tried building that twice, and both times, I just apparently wasn’t enough. Because I am an eternal optimist, staying depressed just wasn’t in my nature, so I kept putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward. Finding Nemo (Just keep swimming! Just keep swimming!) was sort of a motto and a battle cry, and I kept moving forward. I spent months rebuilding my self esteem so that I could look in the mirror and see an image of God’s child and not an image of the insults that had been thrown at me. It was a lot of hard work to find healing, but I did, and I could see myself truthfully again.

But it was that night – the very first hours of New Year’s Day – that God began to deal with me about that dead dream, the one I jokingly called a nightmare. The family I’d wanted – two parents, kids, dog, fence, me being the stay-at-home Mom who loves my babies and waits anxiously for the Dad who loves me and the kids to come through the door – was not the dream I’d gotten.

No, I don’t have the dream I wanted. I spend my days working so that we can have a place to live, food to eat, some comforts of life. Once the three of us walk through the door, there isn’t any point in waiting around. No one else is coming home. But I did get a dream. It just wasn’t the one I was expecting. Tonight, after my two mile walk with my mom, Noelle, David, and I came home, put together a puzzle, sang songs, read a story, and at the end of the story, I tucked the two most precious gifts any mother has ever received into bed. Oh yes, I am living a dream, and even if it wasn’t the one I wanted, I would not trade this life – this dream – for ANYTHING.