A few years ago my sister, who lives in the panhandle, asked if I would be the guest speaker at her church’s annual Christmas luncheon. I was humbled that she would ask, and said I would be happy to. The theme that year was joy…so I bounced around ideas in my head about joy, but couldn’t really settle on how to structure a talk around the topic. I mentioned some thoughts to my sister, and she said, “Just tell your story.” My story didn’t seem all that exciting to tell…at least to me…and I still felt uncertain as to what to do. The next day, however, I got one of those flaming arrows from heaven. You know, something that a lot of people would call an uncanny coincidence…unless you don’t believe in coincidences. I recognize those things as God making His point…a flaming arrow…right from His very own bowstring. I get a daily email devotional from Harvest Ministries and the day after my sister said, “just tell your story,” the title of the devotion was…you guessed it…”Just Tell Your Story.” Okay, I got the message!
Thinking about this first blog, it seemed like I should once again, just tell my story, so you all have some idea who is writing…at least as much as you can in a (hopefully) brief sharing of fifty-one years of life. That said, my story is not about me. It’s about God…working in me, and with me, and for me. While it is specifically my story, it is also an everyone story…because God desires to work in every life. How He does that is as unique as each individual life, and often it’s only in the telling that we actually see what He is doing. So here goes…
I grew up on a farm south of Brunswick, Nebraska, my four sisters, one brother and I, the product of loving parents…I am number two of the six. We grew up attending a good church, attending Sunday and Bible school like clockwork. I saw the great Bible stories done in flannel graph so many times that I had all of them memorized from beginning to end. (For you younger readers…ask someone forty or over what a flannel graph is…very low tech!) Somewhere in those early years I remember asking Jesus to be my savior, because I didn’t want to go to hell. I had heard a lot of good old fashioned hellfire and brimstone sermons, and I wasn’t about to hedge my bets…if there was a hell, and Jesus was the way to avoid it, count me as a follower. As a young teenager I felt this lingering fear, however, that I had somehow prayed that salvation prayer wrong and it didn’t stick, so I went forward after another one of those sermons and gave my life to Christ again. Not to say that I didn’t have doubts after that, but in time, I began to trust that I belonged to God, and He would not reject me on a technicality.
I married my high school sweetheart when I was a tender nineteen years old, and ten months later we were the parents of a delightful, healthy baby boy…Justin. I had always wanted to be married, and to be a mom, and it seemed to me that God wanted that too. Not that I really consulted Him in my choices on all of that, but no big roadblocks popped up, so I felt that to be enough confirmation that God wanted for my life what I wanted for my life. We lived on a dairy farm north of Orchard…in a tiny trailer (12 X 56 if I recall correctly), with a little addition built on the side. We worked hard, but life was moving along a path that I thought suited me. I wanted to play by the “rules” and I certainly didn’t want to displease God, but I still wanted to make my own choices as I pretty much always had. Sometimes, though, we don’t get that privilege.
I found that out on a bitterly cold Sunday morning in January of 1985, when our little trailer home caught fire and burned to the ground in a matter of minutes. We were home at the time, and escaped safely, but virtually all of our belongings were destroyed. While the trailer wasn’t a great loss, we did have nice things…a lovely maple dining set, a treasured cedar chest, beautiful dishes, tons of toys for our little fellow, lots of clothes, and the list goes on. While I was shaken, the fact that we all escaped unscathed comforted me. I knew that things could be replaced and thanked God for keeping us safe. He was also very gracious to preserve something that couldn’t be replaced…our photos. They had been in just the right place so as to be protected from the flames. It was a year and a half later when I understood the absolute grace surrounding this particular detail.
In August of 1986 my husband and a neighbor, both hurrying home late in the afternoon, met each other at the crest of a little hill on the county gravel road between our homes. Both being left-of-center just a bit on that narrow road resulted in a fiery crash killing them outright. At twenty-four I was a widow with a small son, who was just two weeks shy of being four years old. Without warning the course that I had chosen for my life had been forever changed. I wasn’t angry with God; I was just confused. Didn’t He want for me the things I wanted? Weren’t a home and a family, and life on the farm good things to want? I was unprepared. I had no college education, no real means of support. All I knew to do was cling to Jesus. I knew I didn’t want to milk cows, so that was the first concern. My sister and brother-in-law offered to move close by and help me for a few months until I could figure things out. I decided that I needed to liquidate the herd, sell the farm equipment, and move into town and start afresh. But that sounds easier than it was, because we were in a very poorly defined business relationship with my in-laws…and they saw things very differently than I.
Though I wanted to handle everything in a Christ-like way, I met roadblocks at every turn. My in-laws saw things one way, and I saw them another. I finally decided that the right thing to do was to meet in the middle…if we both gave halfway, we could go on, I thought, with a good relationship, not allowing our differences to destroy family ties. Sadly, they refused…and once again, I was confused. What was I to do now? Didn’t God want me to be a peacemaker? In time, God provided me with the Godly counsel I needed, and I realized that whether I wanted to or not (and oh, I so did not), I would have to seek resolution through the courts. I so disliked having to deal with lawyers, but God gave me peace that I was doing what needed to be done. It took several years, before the courts brought us to what I felt was a fair resolution. My husband’s family didn’t see it that way, and pretty much walked away from us completely at that point. It was hurtful, but God was constant and continued to provide just as He had during all those years of uncertainty.
A year after the accident, my son and I had moved into Orchard…into the small rental house that I still call home. The year after that, we both started school…kindergarten for Justin, and classes at Northeast Community College for me. I earned an associates degree within a couple of years, but was out of money for more school. (The legal battles were still going on at this point.) I didn’t want to move because Justin had been through so many changes, I just couldn’t see uprooting from what was finally a stable life. I worked at the local convenience store but I wanted more than that. Then a friend told me about a job opportunity at the new state park that would soon be opening just ten miles from Orchard. The Ashfall Fossil Beds had advertised for a “clerk/typist” in the paper. Whether I had overlooked it or just dismissed it when I saw the word “typist,” I can’t say (I’m still not much of a typist), but my friend vehemently insisted that I should apply for the job. Even though it was a day past the application deadline, I called…just so I would not disappoint my friend. Surprisingly, the application deadline had been extended by a week because one of the local papers had failed to publish the ad a third week as required…so, yes, I could still apply. God’s doing? I wondered. I had to take a math test and a typing test for speed and accuracy (oh no!) at the local extension office, so the night before I must have practiced typing “All good men come to the aid of their country.” at least two hundred times on my old Smith-Corona electric typewriter, hoping that I might improve just a little so as not to be completely embarrassed! The math test was easy, but dread still filled my heart over that typing test. As the extension agent gave me the instructions, however, she informed me that it was supposed to have been a test for accuracy and speed, but that someone had goofed and everyone had been taking the wrong test. This test required putting a business letter into form and then typing it out. My heart leaped…I could form up a letter in no time flat…maybe there was hope! God’s doing, again?
Surprisingly, I did well enough to garner an interview. I had not expected to get this far in the process. The day I drove up to the newly built visitor center at the park was rainy, and my confidence was faltering. The muddy road, driveway and parking lot just reminded me of how I felt. Stuck. I told God that I had no idea if He wanted me to have this job, so if He did I would trust Him to give it to me, and if not, I would understand and look elsewhere. I got out of the car, walked through the mud, and took my shoes off at the door so I wouldn’t track across the new tile floor, and the interview began. I made it through, but was sure I would not get the position, and drove home in tears of fear and frustration. What was I going to do? I felt so unprepared for this life I had not planned on. I had absolutely no confidence in myself and maybe not even in God, and a cloud of depression as heavy as the clouds overhead enveloped me.
About a week later I got a call and my heart leaped…the job was mine if I wanted it! I was almost speechless. (And if you know me at all, you realize what a rarity that is!) After the initial shock wore off, I felt a nagging lack of confidence. I feared that I had gotten in over my head. I had never really considered what it would be like to be employed by the University of Nebraska…to be out in the working world of professional and academic people. I didn’t know how Justin would handle the adjustment either. But I knew what I had asked God…to give me the job only if He wanted me to have it…so I stepped out believing that I was within His will. Here’s the thought-provoking part of it all. I found out later that there were a couple of unusual things in my favor when it came to getting this job. The fact that I took off my muddy shoes was evidently enough to convince my interviewer that I was conscientious about place and person. Was the mud that day God’s doing? Was something that seemed to confirm my fear actually the grace of God? The other factor was that I have good penmanship, which the supervisor thought was important (perhaps because his is atrocious). Really? It’s such a small thing. I pondered all those years ago in elementary school, when I was making ovals and practicing slants in the twenty minutes of penmanship that started each school day. Could God have been preparing me for something so far down the road even then? (I know that the very fact that I practiced penmanship in school really dates me, but I already told you my age, and I am unabashed!)
It was 1991, twenty-two years ago this month, that God blessed me with a good job at the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, where I am still employed. So many good things have come from this single thing in my life. Justin had a chance to spend summer days at the Grove Lake Bait Shop where he wasn’t held back by an overprotective mother. (I confess, I had a hard time with that…always fussing about “being careful.”) He spent days fishing, tubing down the creek, building tree houses and a lot of other things boys ought to do on summer days. (There were a few things he probably shouldn’t have done too, at least as far as the overprotective mother was concerned, but even those things gave him room to grow.) Justin also met and became fast friends with the Superintendent’s son, and they remain the best of friends to this day. I learned skills of all kinds…how to work with people, lots of math and science, computer and office skills (I can copy and fax with the best of them!), store management techniques, and much, much more. This farm girl who was afraid to try something new, has something new to try almost every day. You simply cannot work with the public and two government agencies (the University of Nebraska and the Game and Parks Commission) and expect a boring job experience! You see how God blessed me so much with this single thing, and blesses me still. As the job grows, I have to grow too, and that stretching is a good thing for someone who had been so afraid to try new things, suffering a chronic lack confidence. God was so gracious toward me…but the bigger question is how faithful was I toward God?
I would love to tell you that I really grew close to God over those early years at my Ashfall job…that I allowed Him to have His way with me. I wish I could say that I understood after His obvious blessings that what He wanted for me was better than anything I could want for myself. But no, like the Israelites in the Bible stories I had memorized in childhood, I was a slow learner. After all the turmoil of early adulthood, I guess it felt awfully good to settle into a pattern in life, even though I was busy. With a child to care for, a job to go to, and a house and yard to look after, my days were pretty full, yet I loved it. I didn’t leave God out of my life, but unfortunately, I relaxed spiritually and didn’t give Him the place He deserved either. If you know the Ten Commandments, you know that the first one is “You must not have any other God but Me.” (Deuteronomy 5:7 NLT) This, of course, means that God and God alone should have first place in a believer’s life…not a job, a child, household responsibilities, or anything else. First priorities are the ones that get your “prime” time, not your leftover minutes, but I put other things first and began to marginalize God’s place in my life. In fact, I got pretty good at decorating the walls of my life with Him rather than building the foundation of my life on Him. You know what I mean?
Patching over the problems?
I knew a lot of the right things to say…we prayed at mealtimes, we went to church most of the time, I read a five minute devotional most mornings, and I prayed every day…even if it was just the twelve minutes I spent in the car going to work. We talked about God at home and I was still looking for Him. I wanted His blessings and I still wanted to play by the rules and please God, but again, I didn’t really consult Him when it came to the choices I was making. My “house” looked a lot better (even to me) than it really was. The walls of a house that is teetering on collapse can look pretty good…especially if the owner is careful to paint over any telltale cracks, hang curtains over sagging windows and place pretty pictures over falling plaster. The owner of the house can also plant flowering shrubs around the outside of it so no one can see the rotting boards or crumbling cement blocks around the foundation. After a while, even the owner can fool himself into thinking that it’s a sound little house…after all, it looks so good…when the reality is that it is seriously jeopardized by a faulty foundation. (Check out Psalm 127:1) As the years rolled by, that was my house; that was me.
A Mystery Ilness Hits
But like I said early on, while this is my story, it’s about God…whether I recognize it or not…and about eight years ago He reminded me of this truth in a big way. Through the fall of 2005 I wasn’t feeling like my usual perky self. At first I was just tired…out of energy…and unmotivated. By March of 2006, I was losing weight even though I wasn’t trying. (Now what woman doesn’t love that!) The weird thing was, I had a voracious appetite and ate what I wanted. I also had this chronic pain in my shoulder and at the base of my neck. I was thirsty all the time and probably got up eight or ten times each night to go to the bathroom and get a drink of water. I was having a terrible time concentrating on anything and had to read things over and over to comprehend them. Then I started to have problems with my vision. Whether my glasses were on or off, things were blurry. I went to the optometrist and got new glasses…still blurry. Right about the same time I went for my routine visit to the gynecologist. I filled out the questionnaire that one periodically gets at a doctor’s office, one of those “Have you experienced any of the following conditions?” things. The questions mirrored the symptoms I just mentioned and I honestly answered them in the affirmative. Unbelievably, the fact that I checked “yes” to all these warning signs, didn’t throw up a red flag to my doctor or his nurse. When I told my doctor about the chronic pain in my shoulder and neck, he suggested an appointment with a neurologist. At this point, I was starting to get scared. (Yes, I was too dense to be scared any sooner!) I wondered if I had a brain tumor, or some kind of cancer. My ability to think was compromised and I was exhausted, but I was still afraid to know the truth. Things were getting worse, however, and I was struggling with simple daily tasks. I would have to sit down after using the curling iron to put two curls in my hair, rest my arm, and get back up and do two more. (Actually, if I had been wise, I would have just given up on curling irons altogether at that point in my life, but that’s a whole other story. )
With no help from the last doctor’s visit, but fearful to consult another doctor, I finally went online and started looking up my symptoms …and it appeared for all the world to me that I was suffering from diabetes. How could that be? I did not fit the MO for that! I was a physically active person, I ate a pretty healthy diet, there was no history of it in my family, I hadn’t been overweight. Still, the symptoms fit. I called a friend who was a nurse and she told me to make an appointment with my regular doctor…to insist on a blood test, and especially an A1C to see what my glucose number had been averaging over the past two or three months. I hesitated. Afraid again. Then I went to the dentist and had a terrible experience…I had never had such a painful visit to the dentist…and there are more fillings in my mouth than teeth! As soon as I got out of that office and into my car I was on my cell phone making an appointment. The next day, a few hours after my visit, I had the diagnosis. My A1C was 11.4 and it should have been under 6.0. There was no doubt. I suddenly had a new description for myself…diabetic.
On the drive home I was relieved to have a diagnosis and thankful that it wasn’t that brain tumor. But I was sad too…I love food. I thought about pancakes and syrup, which I relish, and how I should probably never eat something so carb rich again. I thought about my taste for desserts and the practice of enjoying a Hershey bar in the middle of the afternoon. I prayed. God reminded me that I had enjoyed pancakes for nearly forty-three years, and that most people in the world would never taste anything so delicious. He reminded me that I really do like vegetables and salads. He reminded me that there are a lot of chronic diseases like MS or Parkinson’s that can’t be controlled by diet, exercise and medication, but this disease was manageable. He reminded me that I needed Him. And that was the beginning of a new journey. A physical journey through the world of diabetes…from initially being diagnosed as a Type 2 and finally a correct diagnosis of Type 1…learning how and when to eat, use insulin, treat the lows and recognize the highs and a thousand other things. It’s been eight years and I am still learning. But that’s the very least of it. The real journey, the cherished journey, the harder journey, has been the spiritual one. While the first journey restored my body, the second restored my soul. God had my attention and He didn’t let go.
Little by little, like peeling away the tough, dry layers of an onion, God started peeling away the tough, dry layers of my soul. My son had been off to college for four years at that point, so I had a lot of leeway in how I structured my day. I was already an early riser, and I started listening to the “New Beginnings” radio program with Greg Laurie at 5:30 AM when I got up to take my first dose of insulin. His enthusiasm for Jesus and his genuine urgency to share the Gospel was so palpable…and I was drawn in. I started walking early in the mornings to improve my blood sugars, and that quickly became a sacred, daily prayer time for me. That regular prayer time made me hungrier to know God better. I started looking for a church that would minister to me. (The one I sporadically attended was, well, for the most part, dead.) The church God led me to had a pastor at the time who was a godly man, and his sermons were always about Jesus. I cannot express to you how hearing sermons about Jesus excited my soul…how I just wanted more…more Jesus…so I started reading my Bible. When my parents asked what I wanted for Christmas that year, I said I wanted a new study Bible, one with footnotes, so I could understand better what I was reading. (You surely must know that if you ask your Christian parents for a Bible, you will get what you asked for! ) I started pouring over the pages and experienced new levels of understanding of those old stories I thought I knew so well. I kept hearing about a translation of the New Testament called The Message, written in modern vernacular, and I finally went and bought myself one…and read it as fast as time allowed. There was something about reading the New Testament straight through that made me want to read the whole Bible straight through, but I hesitated…that seemed like a daunting task, even with my NIV Application Study Bible at the ready. Then one day, talking to Justin, I mentioned it…and he said a very profound thing, “Well, Mom, it is a book.” That really struck me. Why do we treat the Bible more like a reference book (culling it for things we need) rather than as the true storybook it is? I decided. I would read it from Genesis right through Revelation.
It took me a little over a year, and there were some books that I struggled through (think Leviticus), but when I was done I realized how valuable the experience was. I began to actually think differently about God, myself, my world…about nearly everything. I had a new sense of God’s holiness, and my own unworthiness. I had a new understanding of how the whole Bible is a story about Jesus…it’s really all about Jesus. I marveled, and marvel still, at the fact that I had been a Christian since childhood, but I had not even begun to grasp the richness and wonder of what that means. They say the longest distance on the planet is the distance from one’s head to one’s heart, and in my case that was completely true. I knew a lot of stuff about Jesus, but in a lot of ways, I didn’t know Jesus. I had been satisfied to let Him be my savior, but had never made Him my Lord. The difference is like night and day. There was a total paradigm shift in how I viewed what it means to be a Christian. To have Jesus as the Lord of your life is what it means to have “abundant life.” (See John 10:10)
Beauty from the Ashes
At this point you might think that I suddenly found myself with all my troubles solved, basking in God’s blessings…not a care in the world…and you would be dead wrong. It was actually the beginning of the biggest upheaval in my life, and that’s no small statement considering my history. I began to see sin the way God sees sin, and there were some major things in my life that needed changing. Things that I had justified in the past suddenly seemed so unjustifiable, and I started addressing areas of my life that were brazenly sinful and those that most people would just overlook as “personal shortcomings”…or small sins. The catch there is that no sin is small…sin is just sin. Period. A white lie or murder…either one would have nailed Jesus on the cross to atone for us because any sin separates us from God. It’s been slow…painful at times…often full of frustration at my unwillingness, my slowness, my rebellion, my refusal to let God have my whole life. No one does that overnight…it’s a process. But what a glorious process it is!
Glorious? Did you just read that right? GLORIOUS? Well, yes, you did read that right. How can something so difficult be so wonderful? Since I am a woman writing to women, let’s just use childbirth as the analogy. There is joy in the pregnancy…new life is formed…and there’s anticipation. But in order for that joy to be completed, we have to go through the pretty intense pain of delivery. The child can grow and become all that he or she was meant to become, but only after the pain. It’s the very same way with the Christian life…in order to grow, to be all that we were intended to be, there is going to be some pain. For some the pain is more intense than for others, but we all experience it if we are going to grow. But, WOW! The blessings!
So, here I am. I still know struggle, but I know victory too. I have sorrowed over poor choices and the consequences of the same, but I have come to understand that God is the ultimate conservationist. He wastes nothing in my life. Things the enemy had intended to destroy me with, God has turned to blessing. (See Deuteronomy 23:5 ) Though I wish I had understood much earlier what it really means to completely abandon to God, so that I might have avoided many mistakes, He is making beauty from the ashes of a broken life. No one can do that but God…not for me…not for you. And here’s the best part…God not only can transform a life…He’s longing to transform a life…my life…your life. So, in the weeks and months ahead, if you read what I post, you will know who it comes from and why my heart longs to share everything it understands about walking with Jesus…why nothing has ever captivated my heart more or changed my world so completely as walking through life day by day with my savior and my Lord.