...to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified. Isaiah 61:3Over the years, I have shared my story countless times. Sometimes calling it a testimony, sometimes just having coffee w/ a friend and sharing about my childhood. Each time it takes on a new flavor as I select which details to exclude, tailoring it for my audience. Here, I hope to include them all. I want my story not to glorify the sin and poor choices in my life, not to glorify the suffering, the broken, the ugly, not to glorify anything I have done; rather, I want my story to glorify the One who has redeemed me and all things hard, ugly, broken. I’m reminded that God is more concerned about who I am becoming than with who I was or what I am doing or what I have done.
Like many Hoosiers, I grew up in a small town and was a farm girl. Our family is very tight-knit, and I’m a bit of a black sheep for moving one hundred miles away (considering that my siblings are within a ten-mile radius of my parents, you can understand why). Our church family seemed to overflow into all areas of life: my teachers, coaches, family friends all constituted our church family and ultimately our small-town community. I felt very safe, loved, and supported as a child. My earliest memories are full of family vacations, gatherings at my grandparents’ pond, and lots and lots of love and laughter.
Other than normal childhood selfishness and mischievousness, the first time I recall darkness entering my life was at the age of nine. Our large extended family spent lots of time together, always a favorite childhood memory. But this time would be different. This time darkness would creep in and take hold of innocence and begin to leave a bleakness that would mark two decades of struggle. This time a relative would expose me to pornography and sexual abuse that would follow over the course of the next couple of years. This time would create in an innocent child confusion, curiosity, and above all, shame.
This blackness would end up where most of my blackness ended up: shoved, stuffed deep into a corner of my heart and mind, never to be spoken, never to be shared, but allowed to fester and poison a soul. With it deeply stuffed away, I was able to profess my faith that summer and be baptized and then go about life as a “good Christian girl” over the next decade. I was an All-American hometown sweetheart, participating in every club imaginable, competing in sports year-round, and serving others out of the “goodness” of my heart. I even visited residents at nursing homes and led a Bible study for girls five years my junior because I was simply that “good.” All the while, that blackness still poisoning me with desires and shame.
Desires that I sometimes acted on by accessing pornography on my own or acting out in dating relationships. Followed always by deep, deep shame. Followed always by repentance and sorrow and a resolve to do better.
And so college came and went much the same. A good Christian girl at a good Christian school working at a good Christian camp in the summers: a life devoted to ministry and rule-following and good works.
And then I graduated. And much of the same. The long ago stuffed-blackness reared its head, carnal desires waged war, and shame condemned me. The vicious, never-ending cycle was leading me down a path of destruction. I hated who I was, and most of all I feared missing what the Lord had for me because of this darkness.
About this time, I had that same conversation with a friend in my small group at church. How above all, I feared missing God’s plans for my life. And we both walked away from the conversation knowing something spiritual had just linked our hearts, and within three months we were engaged, married six months later. And that man. That man has helped me to unstuff the blackness. To forgive a relative who wronged me. To ask God to free me from this prison of self-condemnation and hurt and shame. To find freedom in Christ. Because though I had professed my belief at the age of nine, I had not lived freely according to the life I had been given. I had still lived chained to my hurt, to my desires, to my shame. And with the help of a godly man, I realized the power given to me in Christ to be freed from those things.
So a few years into marriage that wonderful man and I found out we were going to have a baby. We were ecstatic as this fit into our plan and timeline. But I soon had some spotting and we were concerned about the well-being of the baby. An ultrasound revealed he was fine, but after my 16-week appointment, “fine” was no longer part of my vocabulary. Replaced by “fear,” all I could do was fear what might be wrong with him. We were told that based on the results of a prenatal test, I was at an increased risk for having a child with Down syndrome. This seemed highly unlikely as I was only twenty-six and this was our first pregnancy. (Besides, didn’t only women advanced in maternal age have children with Down syndrome?) But in-depth ultrasounds increased my risk even more so that we were left with a one in seven chance. I cried a lot. And at times I thought a miscarriage would be a blessing. So much fear of the unknown. So much fear. Still, I convinced myself it was unlikely.
Then birth happened five weeks too soon, the baby came breach, and no one was ready to diagnose Down syndrome upon his appearance at birth. Still we wondered. A prolonged stay at the hospital with some need of oxygen and lamps before heading home where we first started to note some facial characteristics of Down syndrome. Eleven days old, and at his first doctor’s appointment a new blackness came crashing in to my elated new-mother’s heart. My perfect baby had Down syndrome.
And days turned into weeks turned into months of mourning. Grieving the child I thought I’d had…daddy’s little football star, a big strong man. Suddenly all I could see was everything my child was not. I couldn’t see that he would bring us joy unspeakable. That we would love him so much our hearts risked bursting. That there would be no words for the way he touches us so deeply, daily. All I could see was lack. Lack of all the dreams I had dreamed. Yet through it, I didn’t question God, or whether God was good, or even why. I simply wondered, “how.” How was I supposed to do this? How would I raise a child with special needs? How would he be treated in life? How would he get through school? How would he be received beyond school, in the working world? How long would he be given life on earth? How long would he want to live with us? How would this affect subsequent pregnancies? How would this affect future siblings? How long before he would walk and talk and feed himself? And on and on.
Who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? Or does not the potter have the right over the clay to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which he prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called . . . Romans 9:-20-24
And while the blackness sought to bring me back into that place of confusion and shame, God was so good and refused to let me go there. He pulled me close and was kind in my time of hurt. Friends and family were supportive, and slowly doors opened to new friendships with mommas in the same position, mommas who could relate and love me in the broken.
And slowly, the broken turned into the beautiful, the lack turned into plenty, the curse turned into the gift.
But I’m stubborn. A bit of a mule. And I learn slowly. Very slowly. And instead of recognizing God’s hand and guidance in my life, I’m determined to make my own course, so what began as a hobby and tinkering with some yarn for friends turned into a full-blown business. In the midst of having three babies in three years I decided that running an at-home business through an Etsy shop was a GREAT use of my time, energy and mental resources. (Did I mention I’m stubborn?) Little did I realize that a gift of creativity would soon become the next area of blackness in my life, consuming my pride and energy, and turning me into a grouchy, irritable, tired person. No free time to play with kids, meet with friends, or minister. I was simply getting by and looking for the next free minute to crochet. But in January 2013, our pastor started a sermon series on Acts, and when he read Acts 1:8, the Word took hold of me.
"but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in all Judea and Samaria, and even the remotest part of the earth."
I cannot recall a single word of that sermon that day, but THE Word worked mightily in my heart that moment and told me that my life was supposed be different. Different than those around me. That those around me would know no different and certainly not know Him as a result of interacting with me. That I needed to pursue relationships with the women in my neighborhood. My business was an idol that had to be crushed. So I closed up shop two weeks later, and that began a period of spiritual growth that leads me to now.
These two years have been marked with highs and lows, feast and famine. But there is always a constant. See, God is never the one who moves. MY heart is prone to wander. In moments of famine, I have but to whisper, “Jesus.” And that is sometimes all the prayer I can muster. But always, always my savior is near, always he is kind, always he is patient.
Friends, my prayer would be that we all learn that. That no matter what blackness, brokenness, ugly we've experienced or are experiencing in our lives that we can trust our savior is near. And he is always good.