Gifts

When I got married, I was far away from God. Then, in His great mercy, Jesus called me to Himself. Although I rejoiced in my rebirth, the longer I walked with God, the more I could see that there was a problem. A BIG problem. I was living unequally yoked with my husband (2 Corinthians 6:14). Simply put, Jason and I were not walking on the same narrow path that leads to Christ. In fact, we weren’t even going in the same direction. Jason was heading south. I was heading north. God never intended His children to live this way because it is painful, annoying, frustrating, and divisive all at the same time.

As I reflect on this time, I am aware perhaps for the first time of how difficult my transformation had to have been for Jason. In the span of a few short months, almost everything that connected us when we had first dated dissolved away. I was no longer interested in the same movies, TV shows, or songs, I had no interest in partying or attending shallow gatherings where conversation was blurred by alcohol, and I had very different ideas about how to raise our baby girl.

At first, my priority was to “get Jason saved”. In my zealous desire to see his salvation, I did absolutely everything wrong. I remember one day in particular. I stood in our bedroom crying like an idiot sobbing into his chest, “I don’t want you to go to hell!” I lamented. Poor guy! I would give anything to have a video of this encounter so I could see the look on his face. It must have been a mix of amusement and annoyance. How did he ever endure my dramatics?

While my heart was in the right place, I was trying to do the work that only the Spirit can do. Instead of taking my fear for Jason’s soul to the only Person that could do something about it, I tried to win him for Christ using my own efforts. I anointed his pillow with oil, his shoes, his coat, and his car seat. I lectured often, probably making him feel guilty and put off, instead of feeling loved and drawn to the light.

Slowly, when I saw that my manipulations were clearly having no effect on Jason, I began to retreat emotionally. I stopped trying so hard. Instead, I directed my energies outside my home. I sought solace and fellowship with Christ, with my parents and brother, and with a Christian friend that I met at work. I poured out my heart to my friend instead of to my husband. I dreamed of serving the Lord in many ways, but never really included Jason in any of those visions and plans.

The end result of this was obvious: my heart became almost completely detached. I went to church by myself. I prayed and worshiped by myself. I even traveled without Jason or my kids. After a few years, because I had not invested my time and heart into my marriage, I no longer cared about my marriage. I just wanted out! “He doesn’t understand me!” I complained to God! “He’s difficult. He’s stubborn. He doesn’t love me like Christ loved the church, nor does he have any interest in trying!” I felt trapped and hopeless many days.

The lowest point came when I sold my wedding ring so I could afford to rental truck to move closer to my parents. I wanted to be nearer to the support system that I felt I needed to survive, and I no longer cared about Jason’s opinion on the matter. The ring and our marriage had little or no value.

Looking back at this time, I can see how selfish I was. Don’t get me wrong. Jason wasn’t blameless. But my heart was steeped in self pity and entitlement. God, in His patience and loving kindness, endured my tantrums and toddler like maturity. Hindsight allows me to stand in awe at the Lord. He was doing work in me to prepare me to be a partner instead of an island, and as always refining me in the process. Praise Him Who is altogether holy and Who knows me better than I know myself!

There are two things that kept me clinging to hope and to my marriage vows throughout these years. The first and all encompassing reason was my love for Jesus. I loved my Lord (Lord = King and Master) more than my own desire for happiness. So, I chose to die to myself and lay down my desire for temporal happiness as a sacrifice to my King. I knew from all the hours I had spent studying scripture that God hates divorce. He hates divorce because He is in the business of restoration and reconciliation. In fact, all God’s efforts throughout the history of man have been to restore our relationship with the Father that had been severed in the Garden. How could I not then continue to try to maintain the connection with Jason? I was self aware enough to know that giving up would be because of my own hard heart and selfishness. I also knew others were watching my walk with God- many many others. I prayed for these precious souls almost nightly. They needed salvation just like I did. What would it say to them if I simply walked away from my marriage? What would divorce say to my kids? If I could stand firm and hold fast, I knew that our home would serve as a much better launching pad for their future service and ministry in God’s Kingdom. I had stay married if only for them! Finally, Jesus hates divorce because marriage is the only earthly relationship and institution that echoes Christ’s relationship with the Bride, the Church. This is a great mystery, and I wanted to uncover that mystery! I’ll admit this daily death to self was hard. Hard doesn’t begin to describe it really. It was gut wrenching and heart clinching- especially when Jason failed me. When he hurt me. The worst pain I endured was when he was aloof to the efforts I made to try and build upon our crumbling relationship. Throughout it all I continued with Jason because I loved Jesus. When I was weak willed, He was strong. His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

The second reason I stuck it out had to do with a promise. In my communion and conversations with God in prayer, Jesus said that Jason was called to youth ministry. He promised that one day Jason and I would plow side by side, equally yoked, in God’s service. This promise was confirmed by a precious few (including the mysterious woman who wrote me the encouraging letter described in my last post). The promise was given before Jason was saved, and it took faith to believe. I may have lacked discipline at this point in my walk. I may have been selfish. The one thing the Lord has always given me in abundance is faith. So, I clung to this promise with all my might during the really really tough days.

As I clung to this promise, the Lord would often remind me of the reasons I fell in love with Jason. Back in the summer before we married in a hurried frenzy, we worked together at a YMCA summer camp. He was one of the associate directors of the camp, and I was a lowly camp counselor. Growing up, I had a reputation for being observant. I had always watched and observed others closely, and Jason was no exception. I spent many days that summer with my probing eyes on Jason. As I watched him work, my respect for him grew. The kids at the camp absolutely adored him. He was brash, cocky, and could handle both the campers and parents in an unfamiliar inner-city population with ease. His brutal honesty was something that I wasn’t used to, but I loved it nonetheless. I knew exactly where I stood after a conversation with Jason. I also recognized and valued Jason for his strengh. There were many days that summer when I struggled to control my assigned group of campers. Because I had had such a sheltered suburban upbringing, I had no idea how to handle the problems and disrespect that urban kids can throw at authority figures. So, when I was failing, Jason would come and literally rescue me. At first, it wasn’t preferential treatment. He rescued all counselors who struggled because he just had a way with the students. Then, after we started dating, he became my knight in shining armor whenever I faltered or was overwhelmed. I felt protected, cared for, and loved just knowing that he was in the same building. Years later, God would constantly remind me of these qualities, and would further promise that all of Jason’s Godly characteristics would be put to use for His glory… someday. So, I hoped, prayed, and believed the word spoken over my husband.

After that low day I used my wedding ring to pay for a moving truck, things started to change. God really began to work on my isolated detached heart. It was during this time that Jesus stripped almost all material things away. The only thing I had left to focus on was my own selfish ways. Eventually, I understood that I had gotten it wrong when I had spent all those hours serving as only a single person should! In typical Julie style, I had run ahead of God hoping to do “big things” for Him. All my ambitions, dreams, and desires to participate in great missions seemed like good ideas. However, the root of those plans was selfish. They were my dreams and really had nothing to do with God’s will for my life. The Lord had to use the hook on His Shepherd’s staff to pull me back to Him and His heart and will. I had to repent of my ways and behave differently! Again, I had to lay down my dreams and die to myself. My desire to “go” and “do” for the Kingdom would have to be put on the back burner for a time while I concentrated on far more pressing matters: loving my husband and children. Jesus beautifully and kindly taught me that being a good mother and wife was just as important to Him as feeding orphans and visiting prisoners.

One evening during this season, I was spending some time walking around the local town square with my twin brother. We were chatting like we always do when my best friend and I get together and looking for some place tasty to have dinner. As we walked passed little boutiques and shops, I saw an advertisement for a beautiful wedding band set. I frowned down at my naked ring finger and prayed a silent repentant prayer, “Lord, I would really like to have a wedding ring.” God responded with one of those goosebump raising replies that indicate He is indeed sovereign and the examiner of all hearts. He said, “You will get a ring when you are ready.” Wow. How much had been said and implied in that one small kiss of a sentence? He knew I was working on changing the direction of my heart- and recognized my effort. Jesus also had said with only a few words that I hadn’t arrived yet. Finally, enclosed in those words was a promise: I would get a ring when my heart had matured and was spiritually ready to be married. “OK, Lord. I’ll wait on Your timing,” I replied.

A few months passed. At first, I impatiently waited for a ring to mysteriously fall from the sky and drop into my lap. That never happened. The daily grind and monotonous tone of my life continued to try to wear down my resolve to stay faithful to my vows and persuade me to wave a white flag of defeat. Throughout this time as always, I sought strength and encouragement to continue in the Body of Christ. Because I loved writing, I found solace and kindred spirits in an online Christian forum. I met so many beautiful people from across the country and around the word during the days I was active in this online thriving community. I established life long intimate connections with a few precious saints including a friend that lives in North Carolina, one in Illinois, one in Washington, and still another in Oklahoma.

One day on the forum, a beautiful artistic lady living on the east coast named Laurel wrote an open message to members describing a dream she had had the night before. Laurel knew she was to paint a picture of two children dressed in black, and that the children were connected to the forum. After reading the description of her dream, I knew that the picture she was describing was a recent photo of my children! When I sent her this particular photograph, she quickly wrote an ecstatic reply confirming that, yes, these were indeed the children she saw in her dream! Laurel promised to begin working on painting my beloveds and to send the painting to me when she was finished. I was flabbergasted! Laurel knew that I was dabbling in painting myself. What she didn’t know was that I had given all my creations away. I thanked God. We do reap exactly what we sow (Galatians 6:7).

During spring break 2008, my daughter and I made a trip to Oklahoma to visit one of my forum friends, Valerie. It was a great time in the Lord! Valerie has four daughters, so Zoe played and connected with her kids while Valerie and I prayed, laughed and fellowshipped. The whole time I was gone, however, I missed my family. In fact, the theme of the entire trip was family. I knew that God was honored and served by how His beautiful daughter and my friend served her husband, daughters, and parents. She was a model of womanhood, and I wanted to be as beautiful as she was! As I drove back home after my few days in Oklahoma, the closer I got to Indiana, the longer the miles became. I was so excited to see my husband and son! I couldn’t wait to get home, throw my arms around Jason, and begin to love him as I had seen Valerie love.

I pulled into my apartment complex and lugged my bags up the stairs. I remember that I was completely alone, so I must have dropped off my daughter to see her grandparents as she had probably missed them terribly while she was in Oklahoma. When I got to my door with my keys in hand, I saw that a big, square, brown paper wrapped package was sitting there waiting for me. I knew instantly from the package’s shape that it was the painting Laurel had made me. When I opened it, I cried. Here is the painting:

kids

Of course the first thing I wanted to do after opening the painting was to write Laurel a gushing thank you note. How could I convey how much her gift meant to me? I sat down at my computer and quickly logged into the online forum with shaky fingers.

Suddenly, Jason burst through the door. He was home early from work. “I have something for you,” he said. His eyes were excited and my heart fluttered. As he walked towards me with purposed steps, he reached into his pocket. To my utter shock, he pulled out a wedding ring. Not just any wedding ring. I recognized it immediately as my grandmother’s wedding ring that had been on her hand for 45 years.

That did it. I SCREAMED with shock and joy at the overwhelming grace of God.

I knew exactly what the Father was saying in giving me these two precious presents on the same day. The fact that the painting and ring had arrived within minutes of each other was… well even now words fail. Jesus was saying that my heart had indeed moved back home towards my husband and children. My heart… HAD CHANGED! I shook. I cried. I worshipped. Only the Lord could have orchestrated such magnificent gifts in His glorious, extravagant, endless love and perfect timing.

I called my mother immediately to thank her for giving me Grandma’s ring. When my mother didn’t answer her cell phone, I left a tearful message of thanks. My throat was thick as I struggled to form coherent but inadequate words. (My mother saved particular voicemail message and I believe still has it in her saved messages today.) What I didn’t know that afternoon but learned in a later conversation was that while I was in Oklahoma, God had spoken directly to my mother instructing her to give me the ring. Of course He had! I’m so glad she obeyed. Only later was I able to tell Mom the whole story and explain why the gift had meant so much to me.

I can’t lie. Things didn’t magically get better with Jason and I after this day. I didn’t find myself at the end of a some fairytale living out the words “happily ever after”. In some ways, things got tougher. However, change and progress is slow but as steady and faithful as the sunrise. Jesus promises to finish the work He begins (Philippians 1:16).

I will end this entry on a very happy note: God did keep his promise to save Jason. When I stopped “trying” and began to love, Jason became curious. (More on this later!) Today, he is currently serving in youth ministry and hopes to work as a full time youth pastor soon. God’s Word and His promises are true (2 Corinthians 1:20).

I have seen miracles, and they are precious and fabulous to behold.

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