Just Keep Swimming

Just-Keep-Swimming
You know those weird people that laugh at funerals? Yeah- that’s me. I have inappropriate reactions to stress. It gets worse than laughing at a funerals though. For example, several years ago, I was selected to serve as a juror in a murder trial. After two days of testimony, arguments, and deliberation, we, the jurors, entered the courtroom to deliver a verdict. As I walked towards my seat in the jury box, I could feel the stares from the friends and families of both the victim and the accused on both sides of the aisle. The tension was palpable. Suddenly, my eyes locked with those of the lead defense attorney. I could tell he was trying to “feel” me out- trying to gauge what decision the jury had reached based on my observable body language. Quickly I turned my gaze away and bit the inside of my cheeks to quell the nervous laughter trying to bubble out. I could actually hear Perry Mason music inside my head, and the whole thing seemed too utterly ridiculous to be real. But it was real.

Although my thoughts were jumbled that day, if I could have verbalized them, they would have gone something like this: “How can this be real? I live in world where lovers actually kill each other?! Someone wake me up from this nightmare, please!”

Often I’ve wondered why I am like this- why I laugh when I should be somber. I guess it’s easier to smile than it is to cry.

When I was four and living in a foster home, I used to stand at the top of the stairs each morning shivering in fear at the prospect of facing another day. Some days my teeth would chatter in terror as I gazed down at the stairway. I used to stand at the top of the stairs for many minutes most days silently willing my right foot to take the first step down. I don’t know how this happened in my four-year-old creative mind, but somehow the stairs became representative of the real enemy that was my loveless, hopeless life. I knew that if I descended the stairs to join the world below, I had to face another day. Thus, going down the stairs became a battle- a daily valley to be traversed. Sometimes, I would take two or three steps downward toward the reality awaiting me, but then I would chicken out and run back to my bunk bed to hide away under the covers for a few more minutes. One time I hid so long upstairs that it was after lunch before I was finally brave enough to come down. Nobody checked on me to see if I was okay in all that time. Such was the nature of my life.

To cope, I built invisible walls inside. Mostly, I detached entirely.

Later on after I was adopted, most who observed me would have called me a happy child. They would have been mostly right. I smiled easily and did well in school. However, the hurts inside were always there lying dormant, just waiting for the right set circumstances to make their appearance.

And appear they did. During my senior year in high school, I finally let someone in- a boy. I loved him so. He made me feel wild and beautiful. But also scared and vulnerable. I clung to him with all I had. When he suddenly moved mid-way through my senior year, my worst fears were realized. I lost him and then most of my mind for a few months. The pain and grief I experienced is not something I would wish on my worst enemy. I still carry the scars.

My mother took me to a therapist around this time. A middle aged professional doggedly asked me questions for an entire hour in a feeble attempt to get me to open up. I smiled mutely, brushed him off, or redirected the conversation throughout the appointment because I refused to let him see who I really was. I walked out of his office towards the elevators feeling smug. Julie 1, Counselor 0. Mom never took me back to that poor guy again.

Why am I writing all this depressed stuff? I hate doing it. I prefer the happy stuff, right? Walls are my MO.

Recently, I got an email from a friend. She is an extremely private person, so I’ll just call her Ann. Ann wrote to let me know that she has cancer and does not have long to live. When I read the news, every cell inside my body ceased moving. I stopped breathing. Then the walls that I work so hard to hold up crumbled. I laid down, hugged my pillow, and cried. Ann is one of the very few people I’ve managed to let in. She is a beautiful Christian lady, so I know I’ll see her in eternity. I also rejoice for her because she is going to meet our King Jesus soon. But… she’s my friend. She’s a guide and mentor. Ann is my lovely, beautiful, wise, quirky, insightful friend. Oh I’m going to miss her.

Grief. How could anyone put good in front of that word? It scrapes at your outsides. It rots your stomach. Brokenhearted isn’t the right word for grief, is it? How can the heart be broken when it is the organ that keeps you alive. Instead, acute grief feels like a vice grip around your heart. When grief is at its maximum intensity, a broken heart would be a mercy over the pain of a very real and pumping restricted heart. Grief is manic panic and sluggish sadness wrapped up into one ball of hell. I have worked my whole life to avoid it.

God won’t let me get away with that anymore. Grief is a part of the human experience. My Savior can attest to that.

I edit sermons for radio at home. Predictably, I began editing a sermon series in the book of Job after hearing Ann’s news. Job is not exactly joyous reading. Poor Job. When I read and heard the pastor describe just how much Job went through, I really had no idea how he was able to continue and remain faithful. He did though. I suppose that’s why we keep telling his story. 🙂

I am a good student of the Bible because of my memory. I can retain information fairly well. However, the Lord usually speaks directly to me with quick, simple bursts of truth. It only takes one or two sentences from an entire message to stick to my insides and change my life. I’ve been directed to travel great distances to hear one sentence in an entire message. One sentence is all it takes though. That is the power of the Word.

Do you what sentence changed me in this latest sermon series based in Job? (It is a little embarrassing because it is so cliche´.) It is this: Just keep going.

I’ve learned through Job’s story that grief is something that is universally experienced. Even when we feel alone in our pain, we are not. We live in a fallen world, and as such, we must grieve. We must cope.

What do we do when a wave of unrelenting grief comes crashing down on us? In those moments, we can only cry out to the Lord. This is a recent conversation I had with Jesus just two days ago when one such wave of grief threatened to drown me:

Me: “Lord, I just want to be where You are. I am tired of this pain. I want to be with You!”
Jesus: “I am with you.”
Me: “I know, but You are not right here WITH me. I miss You. How can I miss Someone I’ve never met in Person? But I do!”
Jesus: “I missed my Father too (when I was on earth).”
Me: Silent sobs.

Jesus was gently reminding me that there is no pain that I could ever experience that He has not already walked through. In fact, Christ willingly drank my grief just so He could hold my hand today.

“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3)

“For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)

“The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.” (Psalm 34:8)

Jesus is with me.

What I haven’t told you about Ann that I want to tell you now is that God gave me a gentle heads up about her health last summer. One day as I was writing her, the Lord gently whispered that the time with my friend was coming to an end soon. Immediately understanding what the Spirit was saying, I swallowed past the lump in my throat and continued to write. I never mentioned a word of what I heard to anyone, but tucked it away.

When I got Ann’s news, I was immediately comforted. The Lord had told me this was coming. He was with me. He would walk me through it. And somehow, because God is God, I knew I would look more like His Son when I made it past the wave. That’s the only way grief can be good.

I have no choice but to keep going. To descend the stairs and join the real world. To silence the Perry Mason music and face harsh reality. If brother Job could do it, I can do it. I can do it because Christ is with me.

Just keep swimming. Seems like Dory was on to something.

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Love is a Battlefield

loved-graphic

On Black Friday, my children, husband and I sat underneath a string of colored lights in a Mexican restaurant enjoying an unhurried lunch. Happy conversation drifted effortlessly from one topic to another until it landed on family lineage. I remarked that our son, Noah, was the sole person to have any hope of carrying the Hamner name into the next generation.

At this point, my comprehending daughter piped up, “Noah, if your wife doesn’t give birth to a son, you should adopt a boy!”

My husband, Jason, responded, “Yes, but that’s not the same.”

My fork stopped midair, and I gaped at him in shock. Didn’t he remember that I was adopted? How could he be so uncomprehending? Trying to stop him from saying something even more hurtful, I asked, “Are you really saying these words?”

Ignoring the warning in my question and facial expression, Jason blazed onward with an explanation. “The child wouldn’t be a blood relative, so it’s not the same.”

Time slowed down. I turned my face away from the table and stopped breathing. So many ominous gray thoughts began to prickle and congeal, but before I could form a coherent word or react any further, I heard the Spirit whisper, “Adopted into the beloved…”

Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.” (Ephesians 1:5-6).

Father God, using His Word as a sword, zoomed in to tear down the lie that threatened to take root in my heart right there in the restaurant. This lie was the same falsehood I had worked my whole life to fight. It was the lie that told me I was not accepted, that I was not loved, that I “was not the same” as other children. I thought that I had won this war when I had settled contentedly into the truth of God’s love for me years before. I was wrong.

That was because this time I was hearing the lie come out my husband’s mouth. I was stunned. Slowly panic began to hit, and then I could feel that panic try to give birth to something more crushing: shame. I recoiled.

NO. This was not happening. I could not let this happen!

Before saying another word, I got up from the table, walked to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, and howled. All my shell-shocked spirit could do was pray for help. In complete desperation I pled, “Jesus!” over and over. I had faith that Father God would fight the fiery arrow trying to burrow its way into my mind just as He had always done.

In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil.” (Ephesians 6:16)

He would keep his promise that nothing could separate me from His love. If He didn’t, I would be ruined.

For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

After a few minutes of ugly tears, I found the strength to imagine grasping the fiery lie and the crippling shame with both hands, gathering it together to create a tight ball, and throwing the ugly mass to the eternal throne where my King continually sits interceding on my behalf.

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)

Slowly…slowly with each breath I took, the hurt and panic ebbed away. Calm and peace took their place. God’s Word was stronger than the lie and my riotous reactions. Satan had no power over me.

Steeling myself with another silent heavenward plea, I exited the stall and washed my hands and face. Then I left the quietness of the bathroom for the hustle and bustle of the restaurant. The Mexican décor no longer had a joyous effect, but instead the colors and blaring foreign music left me dizzy and off balance. I wanted to escape- to take cleansing shower in a dark room without any other stimulus to push on my already overwhelmed body.

But I had to rejoin my family. They were probably worried about me, and I didn’t want to ruin their lunch entirely.

Jason held out his hand to take mine as I sat down at the table. As he stumbled through a sincere apology, I looked into Jason’s agonized blue eyes and realized I wasn’t even angry with him. There was nothing to forgive. By the grace of God, I understood that the whole experience was a spiritual attack to which Jason was only a bystander. God would not waste the opportunity to point me to higher understanding.

It is January now, a couple of months removed from the rawness of that day. I know without a shadow of a doubt that this little incident will serve as a marker in time. A war was waged, and I won. And you know what? It really wasn’t a fair contest.

I will win all battles, both big and small, when I apply the truth of God’s Word.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)

Undaunted

flower-in-sidewalk

I. Am. Tired.

Not just tired. I’m overwhelmed. I feel like a small animal wanting to weasel her way behind the potty during a thunderstorm. All around me is busyness. My thoughts are in turmoil. Things aren’t peachy in my world, and I’m brave enough to say so.

Someone I am friends with on Facebook recently wrote that she was thinking about leaving social media because she was tired of the façade. “Our lives are not all rainbows and unicorns,” she lamented. She was right to put off by the hypocrisy. Unlike every posed, cropped, filtered, and smiling picture, life is not perfect. It’s not whiny or a “buzz kill” to say so. It’s real.

I would like to expand on my Facebook friend’s point to say that life is especially difficult for Believers. God’s Word warns us that life will be hard for Jesus followers. However, every time the Lord speaks to us of inevitable suffering and trials, He then reminds us of our anchor through the storm, our ultimate hope in Christ, and His precious promises. A few verses to exemplify:

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. John 16:33
Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2 (Notice James says when you encounter trials, not if.)
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. James 1:12
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. Psalm 23:4
• And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 1 Peter 5:10

I had already written all of the above and much of the rest of this post when I came across a horrifying news report on CNN: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHa5WemS2Kw.

I cannot fathom the trials and suffering the linked news story is covering. ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) is seeking to eradicate all Christians in Iraq by burning churches with dozens trapped inside, beheading children and placing their heads on stakes in terrorizing displays of barbarism, raping and murdering women in front of their bound and helpless husbands, and hanging and crucifying (yes, I said crucifying) men. It’s systematic genocide. Right now, 40,000+ Christians are running for their lives in the northern, mountainous, and arid region of Iraq some 50 miles from a safe border. President Obama has responded to their desperate plight by authorizing air strikes and humanitarian aid. I agree with the POTUS’s decision but wish he would do more. In fact, my flesh says, “Bring the rain.” All my pacifist tendencies vanish when I see a picture of a little girl dressed in a blue doll dress, hose, and shoes who is missing her head. Oh the horror. Yet, I have not only prayed for my Christian brothers and sisters, I have also prayed for their persecutors (Luke 6:28). While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). I have also prayed that many would come to know Jesus the Nazarene because of the faith of Iraqis Christians.

After viewing the news and hearing of ISIS boasts that they “will raise the flag of Allah in the Whitehouse,” I go back to the scriptures I copied and pasted rather flippantly and hang on tight to their words. I am not arrogant enough to think that persecution will not come to my part of the world. In fact, I believe that in my life time and especially in my children’s, suffering for Christ’s name will be an ever present reality in the west because of our rapidly changing and (often) disintegrating culture. To quote the Book of James again: “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” I am thankful for the hope that I have in Christ and for the crown of life that awaits me. This world, this utterly broken, sinful, often scary world is not my home. I am glad that one day God will erase the injustice on the planet when He comes in fierce justified wrath. By His spoken Word His enemies will be erased.

And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.” (Revelation 19:11-16)

Until that great and terrible Day of the Lord, Jesus tarries. He waits with supernatural patience and love so that more of His lost children living in a temporal world would come back to their eternal home.

The personal “trails” that I began describing when I opened this post are completely superfluous compared to what my brothers and sisters around the world are going through. It is sobering to view my blessed cushy life from a wider perspective. My prayer after learning about these things is this: May I and the rest of the Western church be found faithful in our freedom. Amen.

However… 

Because Jesus loves me, He takes the time to comfort me. He used a strong man of God to bring a word of encouragement just this past Sunday. So, although my issues and battles pale in comparison to the persecuted church (and should not really appear in the same sentence), God is still taking care of me. Wow. How great is our God! And so, I continue to write very gingerly. I do so because I know I am probably not alone in my weariness. 

Yes. I admit it. I’m weary of doing good. The mind is the battlefield, and I am exhausted by fighting off the shooting arrows that attempt to break me down and tear me to pieces- particularly when I am low on gas. I have to fend off 1,000 lies a day with the truth of scripture. Lies that whisper that God doesn’t know what He is doing when He sets up boundaries, lies that tell me I’m not good enough or unlovable, lies that tempt me to quit running the faith race in favor of the concrete curb of Lukewarm Christianity.

Some days, when I’m feeling particularly blue, I look around at others living for themselves and wish my life were as easy. Answering to no ultimate authority is a fun illusion. Sin has a season. Living selfishly feels like flying- until you slam head first into a mountain.

Mercifully, God let me crash and burn when I was 18. Yes, I said mercifully. God loves those He disciplines. Many will never fall as hard as I did and thus never see their folly until it is too late. The consequences of selfish living hurt worse than anything I could ever verbalize here. I hope I never feel that much pain again. I still can’t openly talk about that period- perhaps someday. However, when all around me was ash and rubble in my late teens and early twenties, I learned one of the most valuable lessons of my life: living “free” by only serving myself led to slavery.

The Lord showed me that to gain my life, I have to lose it (Matthew 16:25). Unlike my Godless friends, I should pray about everything before taking any major life step (I’m working on being able to say “do pray” instead of “should pray”). I can’t work wherever I want, live wherever I want, go to whatever movie I want, make plans however I want, dress however I want, and say whatever I want. “Jesus is Lord” is not some trite profession. He is my Master and King. I must do His will out of the abundant love and gratitude for all He has done for me. Back in 2005, I promised to be a slave for Jesus. I wrote down that promise and signed my name. I still have this covenant/contract in a small Dollar Store frame as a reminder. The Lord needs no such reminder of my promise. I’ll be honest and say that I haven’t kept my word every day at every moment, but I can say that this promise has dictated the course of my entire life. I am His and He is mine.

It’s not an easy life. The road is so narrow.

By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26)

How much easier would Moses have had it in this life if he would have chosen to enjoy palace life, drink, and be merry? Instead, he elected to walk a much more difficult path that included standing up to Pharaoh at the risk of his life, running from armies, circling mountains in the desert, and leading a grumbling, displaced, and disobedient people. Moses wisely understood that true riches had nothing to do with what the world could offer. He knew I AM, and willingly gave up everything in exchange for Him who is altogether worthy, beautiful, and holy. Paul confirmed this truth when he said, “What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)

As I (finally) finish up what has proven to be a difficult post, today’s headlines have shifted from the dire situation in Iraq to the apparent suicide of Robin Williams. Robin was a man who had it all according to the world: riches, fame, a beautiful family, a successful career. All of these could not bring him true lasting happiness. Christ said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Mark 8:36) It’s a sobering lesson.

Daily I choose to sacrifice my wants and wishes as the men and women of God have done before me. I wait and hope and reach. Jesus encourages me to keep going when He says, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39) Truth is right. I have seen miracles. I have lost nothing and have gained everything. The joy that a life with Jesus brings is not the world’s shallow version found in such things as weekend entertainment, a big house, or public praise. The joy and gladness that I possess in Christ sustains me through the suffering and hardships of this life. I don’t need all the other stuff that is supposed to make me happy. They amount to garbage compared to the all surpassing joy of knowing Jesus.

One day in my early twenties, I drove down a highway leading me to Indiana University where I was taking classes during my senior year of college. A song called I Can Only Imagine started playing on my favorite and very secular radio station. When I listened to the lyrics, my eyebrows furrowed. “What is this cheesy song?” I thought. After a few more seconds of Velveeta, I checked the frequency to make sure I hadn’t accidentally nudged the dial to another station. Nope. I was still tuned into my regular spot. The more I listened to this (what at first I thought to be a) ridiculous song, the more uncomfortable I got. A man fervently belted out the chorus,

“Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel
Will I dance for you Jesus or in awe of you be still
Will I stand in your presence or to my knees will I fall
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all
I can only imagine.”

Obviously, for the gentlemen singing, the prospect of meeting Jesus brought great hope. For me, facing Christ invoked only one feeling: fear. I knew I wasn’t right with God. I broke His laws daily and had to acknowledge that a just Deity would rightly punish me for my behavior. Although I was inwardly quaking at the truth coming through my speakers, I could not muster the strength to turn the dial or lower the volume. Even in my Godless state, I thought it disrespectful to change the station.

There were two things that I didn’t understand that day in my car:

1. Mercy Me’s I Can Only Imagine broke all records in Contemporary Christian music. The single became so popular that secular radio stations were forced to play it because the demand for the song was so high.

2. The Lord used this piece of music as the impetus to my new life in Him. My fear of death and of God drove me to begin to search for answers to life’s important questions. This fear was God’s mercy in action. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10) I had lived a decade for myself in the pursuit of happiness but had never found it. The man singing had what all of us ache for- a peace that surpassing all understanding.

When I hear I Can Only Imagine now, I can smile because I am no longer afraid. My hope in Christ and the final glorious rest that awaits me is my all surpassing hope and thus the anchor in my soul.

The Solid Rock (Edward Mote)

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name. Refrain:
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on His unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, His covenant, His blood
Support me in the whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my hope and stay.
When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh, may I then in Him be found;
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.

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.