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Boot Camp

May 15, 2011

On this day last year, I found myself unemployed.  The church that had funded my full-time ministry determined that it could no longer carry the financial burden of the number of employees it had.  The leaders decided to downsize by 25%.  Although I felt that God had been preparing my heart for the change for nearly a year prior to the layoff, I was stunned.  I had not imagined the change would come in that form.  Surely what God had planned was tremendous blessing without any pain, right? 

The swirl of emotions that followed was not unusual, but it was difficult.  I have wrestled with feeling like a failure, rejection and fear.  God sustained me during the worst of the down times.  I had a sense of peace in the middle of the storm that I could only attribute to His presence.  My emotions were reeling, but as long as I kept my eyes on Jesus, the storms soon passed and I was able to keep my peace.  Instead of being swallowed up by the negative emotions, I allowed myself to feel them, gave them to the Lord, and moved on.  That is one of the best testimonies I could ever give to the faithfulness of my Father.  With the wind and rain pounding around me, I was sheltered, safe and secure in His arms. 

There is another very tangible blessing that I see as I look back over this year.  As a single woman, no one else is here to help me carry my financial responsibilities.  No, I don’t have a family to support, but I also have no one supporting me.  I had barely scraped by while I worked full-time at the church.  I had no idea how I was going to make it without my salary.  With no choice but to trust God as my provider, He proved to me that I was not alone after all. 

I was given six weeks’ severance pay.  I felt in my heart that God would provide a new job and I didn’t need to hit the pavement, searching high and low.  But I didn’t want to completely freak my family and friends out by not applying for jobs, so out of respect for them I applied and applied and applied.  I sent out hundreds of resumes and I didn’t get one interview.  Not one. 

During that time, I needed to buy new ink for my printer.  That stuff is expensive!  I sat in my desk chair, looking online at prices, looking at my bank account balance and the bills coming in, and not knowing what to do.  I had the money to buy the ink, but with no more money coming in I was afraid to spend it.  I needed the ink.  As I wrestled with what to do, I felt like God said, “Get what you need.  Whatever you spend will be covered.”  I knew with certainty that this wasn’t a license for irresponsibility, but that God would take care of what I needed.  I spent the money for the ink and the next day a man at church handed me the amount I had spent.

My family had scheduled a vacation to the beach around the time my severance was ending.  I hadn’t committed to it because I thought I’d be starting a new job and wouldn’t have the vacation time.  But as the days neared and I still had no job and money was running out, my prayers grew louder.  I continued to hear God’s voice assuring me that it would be okay.  I felt like He told me to go on the vacation, enjoy myself, not worry about work, and He would take care of everything.  He wanted to bless me with the vacation.  I went.  As I drove to the beach that hot, summer day, I played a song over and over in my car – What’d you say to taking chances?  What’d you say to jumping off the ledge?  Never knowing if there’s solid ground below, or a Hand to hold… 

I took a chance on trusting God, gave up the job search, and thoroughly enjoyed my family.  On about the fourth day of the trip, my fear took over and I allowed myself a pity party.  Of course, I missed out on a really fun day with my family while I sat alone and sulked!  I picked myself up that afternoon and placed my fears back into God’s capable hands.  On the final day of vacation, I prayed all the way back to Nashville, begging God to intervene. 

A few days after I got home, I went to a friend’s house to hang out.  As we talked, she mentioned that her nanny/housekeeper was unavailable.  She shrugged her shoulders and asked me if I’d want to help her out.  I’d helped with her kids before and loved them, but had never considered making a job out of it.  I didn’t need to pray about it.  I quickly answered, Yes, please.  She told me what she paid and the hours she needed.  I agreed.  It was extremely part-time – 13 hours a week – but it was something. 

That was my job interview.  That job soon turned into about 20 hours a week – a low-stress, physical job where I get to care for 5 beautiful children who I adore.  Besides that, I get to help out a good friend with her home.  Ministry just took on a new meaning. 

God also provided a new living situation for me.  I moved in with an elderly woman who needs someone to be present overnight to help her out a little.  Free of typical housing expenses, I had enough money to pay my bills if I lived very frugally. 

It seemed that every time an expenditure came up that wasn’t within my budget, someone would hand me the money I needed or I’d get an extra babysitting job.  I have not had one bill go unpaid.  I worked approximately 20 hours a week for six months and in that time I continued to repay debt as scheduled, and I had everything I needed. 

As I was only working part-time, I had a lot of time to nurture the new relationship that sprung up unexpectedly.  I spent hours every night on the phone with my new love interest, received visits from him, visited him, and didn’t have to miss work to do so. 

My family was concerned about how I would continue to survive financially and urged me to apply for anything I could find so I could have at least another part-time job.  I prayed about it and spoke to my boyfriend about it, asking what he thought.  Together we decided that I needed to be free to travel throughout the holidays (he and all of my family are located in different areas of the country), so I would hold off on finding a second job until after Christmas.  In January, I could start looking. 

I worried about how I’d afford Christmas presents for my loved ones.  (I love giving gifts!)  Because of all the holiday parties and events, I was needed to care for the children on nights and weekends.  The extra hours provided all the money I needed to buy gifts.  I felt so blessed. 

Right before I left for Christmas vacation, I got an email from the church, asking if I would consider a part-time job at the receptionist desk.  Although I was over-qualified, they knew I needed additional income.  I was able to work out the schedule and left for Christmas knowing my financial needs had again been met.  While on Christmas break, my friend asked if I wanted more hours at her house.  She is pregnant again and needed some extra help.  Between the two jobs, I suddenly had 40-hours a week, plus free living expenses.  When I added up the income of the jobs and added in what I was saving in living expenses, I’d gotten a raise! 

Over the last several months, I’ve been able to pay extra on my debt and I even put a little money in an emergency fund.  I still have 3 days off each week, so travel arrangements are fairly easy to accommodate.  And the home I’m living in now has separate guest quarters that make it possible for Rick to stay here when he visits and still have his own space. 

I am thankful.  My God has supplied my needs.  He has given me peace.  He has brought romantic love into my life and the joy that comes with feeling loved and accepted by someone I love and treasure.  God has allowed me the dignity of seeing my debt go down, down, down, and my savings go up.  And God is putting me through a new school these days – that of learning how to run a large household and care for many children.  I now know things I could have never learned in books – like how to put a gleam in the eye of a child who feels a little left out.  I’d like to think I know why He is putting me through this training, but I have discovered that what God does is never quite what I thought He was doing.  He is sneaky.  And while there are times that I feel rubbed raw by the hands that are shaping my life, I am delighted by the outcome. 

I asked God to put me through a sort-of boot camp, quickly teaching me the things I need to know to get where I’m going faster.  Quit dragging it out a little at a time, Lord, and just give it all to me at once.  As long as it’s by Your hand, I’ll be okay.  I can handle it.  I knew it was a dangerous prayer.  I knew I might have times where I really regretted it.  And there have been times where I’ve cried out, Enough!  I didn’t know what I was asking.  Please stay Your hand for a minute so I can catch my breath.  But He is so faithful to me.  He gives such grace.

I see this last year of my life as that boot camp.  God has humbled me, then humbled me again, and then humbled me again.  He has shown me clearly that I can do nothing without Him, and that my pride (I didn’t know it was such a problem) is an offense to Him.  He has proven to me that He will not give His blessing until I put Him first.  And yet He has given me such joy and hope as I explore the beauty of romance. 

…He gives beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.  (Isaiah 61:3)

One year later, I stand in awe of the blessing of the Lord.  Thank You, Jesus. 

Psalm 63: 5 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.

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Man in the Middle

A single woman recently wrote in to an e-newsletter I subscribe to for advice because she’s very attracted to a kind, godly man within her small church.  In spite of her attraction, she’s chosen not to pursue any type of relationship with him because… he’s married.  She’s horrified by her feelings and so she avoids him, doesn’t make eye contact, and can even be cold when he approaches her.  She said he makes an effort to be kind to everyone within their congregation and she feels even worse about not responding warmly to him; but to maintain her integrity, she avoids him as much as possible.  She doesn’t know what else to do.

My heart goes out to her because I understand her struggle well.  I started seminary in 2004, a few months before I turned 29.  I’d been engaged and if the relationship had worked out, could’ve been starting a family at that time.  My emotions were reeling from rejection, loss, and failure.  I already felt like an older bride, and it shamed me to know that I would be even older when I finally married the man God had for me.  Not marrying by age 30 felt like the worst possible failure as a woman. I felt unwanted, like something was deeply wrong with me.  Even though I had been the one to walk away, to choose shame over marriage to a man who wasn’t the best for me, I believed the lie that the failure was mine.  God knew best when He called me to Regent University’s School of Divinity:  the classes, professors, and other students revived my soul.  I learned so much about life, leadership, integrity, friendship, and becoming whole.  When I look back on that time, I see myself entering that world with a raw and bleeding heart and emerging with a whole, healed heart.

During my first week on campus, when I was soaking up the wonder of that place and hoping God had sent me there to finally meet my husband, I met a man.  He was strikingly handsome, which is what I first noticed.  I can’t lie about that…  But I’ve met many handsome men.  What made me notice him was that he was also warm and kind, friendly to everyone, and a capable leader who could think for himself.  He engaged in theological discussion (among other things) without ever making the other person feel less knowledgeable or devaluing their opinions.  He was a student leader, but he was one of the most humble men I had ever met.  I was smitten.

Then one day I saw him at a social event with a woman I had never seen before, and then I saw their children.  Stunned, I realized he was married.  Disappointment and frustration tried to swallow me up.  And a battle began in my soul.

This man and I were in classes together.  A lot of classes.  Small classes.  We worked together on projects and campus activities.  The more I got to know him, the more amazing he became to me.  And he was so kind and friendly – never flirtatious, but genuinely caring.  One day I realized I was in the middle of a daydream about what my life would be like as his wife and step-mother to his children.  Ugh!  Thoroughly disgusted with myself, I turned to God in desperate prayer.  What do I do with these feelings, Lord?

God took me through a process then of learning to die to myself.  He taught me such valuable lessons during this time.  At first, I did what the girl above did.  I avoided him.  I stopped making eye contact.  I was borderline rude.  But that didn’t sit right with me.  I cared about him and didn’t want to hurt him.  I thought about going to him and telling him I was attracted to him and didn’t want to cross any lines so I had to avoid him.  Ha!  I only considered that thought for a minute.  I knew that doing so would just make things really awkward (or if he’d been a man with less integrity, opened the door to a terrible moral failure).  I thought about going to his wife and confessing to her, but while that might make me feel better, it might also create insecurity and fear in her because she didn’t know me at all. 

In the end, through much prayer and seeking, I did two very simple things.  First, I told a trusted friend what was going on in my heart.  She is a good friend.  She didn’t judge or think less of me, but simply promised to pray and to be a sounding board when I needed it.  Secondly, I began to pray for the man and his family.  I had learned a few small details about his wife’s struggles, so I prayed for her.  At first, I had to beg God to help me mean it because the words were bitter on my tongue.  It didn’t take long before I really meant it though.  I prayed blessings on them.  I prayed for their children to be blessed.  I prayed for their romantic love to blossom and grow.  Lastly I prayed that God would help me see this man as my brother and his wife as my sister.  I asked God to help me love them in a way that is consistent with the family of God.

An amazing thing happened during this process.  The Lord replaced my feelings of disappointment and frustration with warmth and genuine concern. When I saw his family together, playing and goofing off, I felt my prayers being answered.  I began to interact with him as I do with my own brother.  I stopped idealizing him and even noticed a few of his flaws.  While I still admire him, I can now see specifically why we wouldn’t be a good match.

I am so thankful that God allowed me to experience this struggle.  Since that time, I have applied the lesson learned in countless ways.  There have been other times when a married man has caught my attention, but by immediately catching myself and praying for him in the same ways, I have kept the emotions in check and gained a brother.  A woman who greatly intimidated me at one time is now a beloved friend because I asked God to help me see her as my sister in Christ, was able to see her struggles, and then prayed earnestly for God to heal her wounds.  When I look at her now, all I see is a tender-hearted woman who simply wants to be loved and valued.

I will take this lesson into marriage one day.  I hear that just because you say “I do”, it doesn’t mean you never notice another person again.  If unwanted feelings come up, I plan to share them with a trusted friend and pray to see the man as my brother. As I write these thoughts, the prayer comes to mind:  Lord, help me to see all men (other than the man You have for me to marry) as my brothers. I also pray now that God will give me compassion and understanding if I ever notice that the man I marry is having a similar struggle and not take it personally.

The funny thing is that the married man I had idealized had character traits that I was trying to develop in myself.  He wasn’t a good partner for me, but a vision I hope to achieve personally.  He was kind to all, a good leader, humble, intelligent without being off-putting, and so on.  The man God has for me is likely to have a different style than mine, so that we complement one another and fit together beautifully.  Today I am blessed to know a man who is kind to all, humble, thoughtful, and quick-witted without being demeaning.  He leads quietly, without appearing to stand out front, living as an example that others can follow.  He leads by making choices that are full of integrity and grace.  While I tend to be emotional and on-the-move, he is as steady and stable as a rock.  And, praise God, he is somehow single and in love with me.

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And So the Story Goes, Part 1

God convicted me several years ago that when He does something good for me, it is a part of my testimony and testimonies are meant to be shared.  I’ve been sitting on this one for a while now and only those who are especially close to me are aware of what God did in my life between the ages of 28-31.  I don’t know how to condense this story any more than I have, so it will be posted in several parts.  We’ll see as we go along how many posts it takes…

 When I was 11 years old, a special speaker came to our church and left a permanent mark on me.  I wish I knew exactly who she was, but all I remember is that she spoke at a mother-daughter banquet.  She talked to us young women about praying for our futures.  She said our parents could pray, but we had a responsibility to pray as well.  She pricked my heart as she challenged us to pray for our future husband and children.  She gave us specifics – for healthy, godly children; for a godly husband – the right husband.  I remember thinking that if I started praying that young for those things, I would have the BEST husband and the most healthy, whole, and godly children of anyone.  And so I prayed and prayed and prayed. 

Fast-forward 15 years to the summer of 2002 and you’ll find me at age 26, still single.  I had been given several opportunities to get married and had declined them all because they were not what I had prayed for.  I was holding out hope for the man who was sent directly by God to me with no question and no compromise.  Then a series of unfortunate events occurred and exposed the weakness of my faith, causing me to lose even more faith in church leaders than I already had.  I had what might be called a crisis of faith.  It’s not that I lost my faith in God; it’s more that I began to seriously question my own standards and whether my faith was actually “faith” or if I was some kind of narcissist who believed she was special and should have the best of everything.  I wondered if, in reality, God just expected me to use my common sense and instincts to find a good man and marry him – rather than wait for some “Divine appointment” to occur. 

I ended up falling in love with a guy from church who was a good, solid, Christian man.  He was financially responsible, funny, professional, intelligent, well-educated, and honest.  We were friends for several years before we dated.  I had never been romantically interested in him until one day a switch flipped inside me and I suddenly was.  I couldn’t explain the switch and thought it must be from God.  After a year of dating, we got engaged and began pre-marriage counseling.  It was then that we realized that we weren’t actually a good match for each other.  It was extremely painful, and we tried really hard to make it work.  He thought it would be fine to keep dating indefinitely and continue working on our issues.  I thought if we were going to keep working at it, we might as well do so married.  At an impasse, we broke up.  To say my heart was broken in a million pieces is not overstating things.  I was devastated.  I was now 28 years old and no closer to my goal of marriage and children. 

During the time that we were trying to work things out, I got very sick.  I ended up in the hospital with what they finally diagnosed as mono and severe tonsillitis.  I was physically weak for about a year following that sickness.  At the same time, nearly every one of my closest friends moved away.  The cost of living went up dramatically and my salary did not, leaving me so financially strapped that I began selling my furniture and anything I didn’t absolutely need in order to pay bills.  I sold my beloved VW Jetta and drove my parent’s old, beat up Chevy Corsica.  On top of everything else, things at my job suddenly turned sour. 

I had worked for the same company for six years and loved my time there.  I had been in my department for three years when my boss retired.  The woman who replaced her didn’t get much training and struggled to manage the department.  I tried to help her, teaching her everything I knew about the job.  I liked her and thought we had a good relationship, but somewhere along the way things changed.  She suddenly turned on me and found something wrong with everything I did.  For four months I was under a vicious attack, but nothing could be found against me so I maintained my job and had the support of her superiors.  But a person can only take that for so long.  It was extremely humbling.  One of the most painful things about it was that my co-workers, who I had been very close to over the years, were forced to turn their backs on me to preserve their own jobs.  Only one of them stood with me. 

I had also been very active in my church for several years.  We had a Sunday school class of 400-500 people (crazy, I know…) and I was the volunteer social activities coordinator.  We did all kinds of fun things and I loved it.  We were led by a dynamic preacher who was an assistant pastor at the church.  He ended up leaving the church due to moral failure and that blew our group apart.  Many stopped attending the church and our social network basically disintegrated. 

I was at the end of my rope.  This was the winter of 2003/2004 – one of the darkest times of my entire life. 

But the good news is that something positive always seems to come out of those dark times.  I had always kept journals, but during that especially difficult time, it seemed I couldn’t get through a day without writing.  I wrote page after page, pouring out my feelings and discovering that I was able to figure things out on paper a lot better than in my head.  As I wrote, it often felt like a Divine hand was guiding me and the words that came to the page were from some other place inside of me – a place I couldn’t find any other way. 

It was during those times of journaling that I gained the courage to do what I knew God had called me to do.

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