Upended

“Where did you hear that God is judging and vengeful?  I don’t remember learning that.  In fact, if anything, what I remember from high school was a sort of watered-down, wishy-washy Jesus.”

My sister posed this question after reading one of my blog posts.  We are twins, so we shared the same schools and grades, and, if not specific classes, at least many of the same teachers.

I plumbed my memory for examples.

Instead, my mind rolled back to the moment I realized the childhood brokenness that I hid behind a wall of control, reason and logic was just my way of dealing with rejection I felt from my dad – and turned me from God before He could reject me.  That realization left me sobbing on the floor – feeling like I was lost forever.  In that heart-crushed place I encountered God’s love through the comforting weight of His hand on my shoulder and His words in my ear.  It’s OK, you’re here now.

I remembered how, suddenly, for me – God was.  How long minutes later I sat on the floor and slowly drew breath.  I looked around the room, almost surprised to find myself alone. I no longer felt His hand, but a sense of calm and lightness washed over me, and I sat and soaked in it.

It was not just the idea of God I had experienced, but the real, tangible God.  I felt certain of that.  I also knew He loved me.  Always had and always would.  I had no idea what to do with that knowledge.  All I knew was that I wanted to know God: this God who showed up when I was in my dark place; this God I had been so wrong about.

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. Jeremiah 29:13

Wow, I thought.  So wrong.  I have been so very wrong all these years.

But now what?

It felt as if a rug had been jerked from under my feet, and my upended soul lay sprawled on the floor.  All my beliefs had changed in the breadth of striking a match.  Yet, somehow, my heart and mind felt sort of “righted.”  Although I did not have a clue as to the how or the why of this God stuff, it was enough for me in that moment to know God was.

I had been so sure of myself, I thought.  I had been so sure I had dealt with my childhood pain and was fine.  I had a good marriage, a wonderful husband, a thoughtful and loving son, a decent job, a nice home, the horse I had always wanted – yet I knew something was missing for a bunch of years.  I was a “good” person with a giving heart and a good and happy life.  I told myself for years that I was kind and thoughtful simply because it was the right way to be – and I honestly thought it was all inside of me, that I had done it all by myself because my mind understood that my dad’s behavior was about him, and not me.  I thought I had risen above the pain of a tattered and scarred childhood.

Until I realized I had risen above nothing.  Until I realized God had been there with me all along. Until I realized how truly ignorant I was.

Once again, the question came.  But now what?

I don’t know, I thought.  I don’t know!  My mind paced even as stillness gripped my body.  I ran my hands through my hair.  My nerves buzzed as emotions pushed aside rational thought.  My heart cried out.  I thought, God, help me! Help me find the answers! Help me heal and to become who You want me to be!

In the stillness I heard:  That is what I have been doing your entire life.

My breath caught at the weight of the words.  A lump rose in my throat and hot tears stung my eyes.  I saw again how God had been with me all my life, how He had gently guided me in my choices since the very beginning.  Once again, the heat of shame rose in my heart.

“Forgive me, God,” I begged.  “Forgive me for not seeing you, for not being with You while You were always with me.”  I swallowed and blinked back the tears.

The weeks after I became aware of God felt like a vicious cycle.  Each time God comforted me in my pain, I saw His love and His hand in my life – and I felt so guilty because I was so unworthy.  I thought, I treated You horribly – and You repaid me . . .  with love . . .  I do not deserve.

I blinked and pulled my mind back from my reverie.  I reconsidered my sister’s question.  Does it really matter where I had heard the lie that God was harsh or condemning? I asked myself.  Truth lay in the light of my memory.

Mere Words?

Listening is a problem for me at times.  I hear, but I do not always heed.

One morning several years ago, I challenged God about heeding His instruction.  I had thrown a pork roast in the slow cooker for dinner, and realized I was missing one key ingredient to make a sauce my family loved. I ran a bit late as I prepared for work, but figured I could drive to the market and back, throw my sauce together and still get to work by 8 o’clock.

At the market I walked to the proper aisle, grabbed the ingredient I needed, and strode to the single open checkout lane.  The clerk had just scanned groceries for a young man in jeans and a black windbreaker.  She announced his total and he ran his debit card.  The card terminal beeped a decline.  He swiped his card again – and the terminal beeped again.  The clerk looked beyond the man at me and rolled her eyes under dark eyebrows drawn on in an inverted V.  Her red lips drew tight when the man asked her to put his bag aside and told her he would be right back.  He walked out of the line and pulled his phone from his pocket.  The clerk huffed a sigh.

I stepped up to the clerk and smiled at her.  “Good morning.”  I placed the jar of sauce on the checkout lane shelf.

The clerk picked up my jar, scanned it and uttered the total.  I handed her cash and waited until she placed the change in my hand.

“Thank you,” I said.  “Have a nice day.”

I walked past the young man as he stood beyond the checkout lane.  He held the phone to his ear, but I guessed he was not getting an answer, because he lowered his hand, fidgeted and paced back and forth.  I had a sense that I should pay for his food, but I was in a hurry, so I walked past him.

That little voice in my head said, pay for his groceries, but I continued my hurried steps and reasoned with myself that I was already out of the store.  Dang, guess I missed my opportunity, I thought.  I climbed into my truck, pulled the door shut and turned the key.  The engine hummed to life.  I reached for the shift lever when I heard again, Go. Pay. For. His. Groceries.  It was the voice I had come to know as the Lord’s.

“But I’m late.  And I probably missed my chance.  And I’m gonna look like an idiot going back in there . . .” I argued aloud.  But even as I pleaded my case, I remembered all the times I had asked God to show me where he was working and had asked Him to invite me into His work.

We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters.  If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion – how can God’s love be in that person?

Dear children, let’s not merely say that we love each other; let us show the truth by our actions. 1 John 3:16-18

I heaved a sigh.  Sorry, Lord, I thought.  I turned off the engine, swung the door open, slid from my truck and walked back into the store. 

The young man now talked into his phone.  I heard, “She said she put $30 in the account.”  I walked past him to the clerk in the now empty lane.

“May I pay for that man’s groceries?”  I pointed to the young man on his phone. 

Her frown contrasted with the surprised look of her arched brows.  “You want to pay for him?”

“Yes,” I replied and smiled.

She kind of shook her head but rang up the groceries.  She told me the total and I swiped my credit card.  The cashier looked at me with a bewildered expression, then her face softened to nearly a smile.

“You have a great day,” she said.

I smiled and wished her the same.  I lifted the bag with the young man’s groceries, exited the checkout lane and placed it in his hand.

“This is taken care of.  Have a blessed day,” I said.

The young man, still on the phone, stared at me with his mouth agape.  I quickly walked off, feeling a little embarrassed.

I left the store, climbed back into my truck and drove home later than I had anticipated.  I thought of the change in the expressions of the clerk and the young man, and the words that trailed off as I walked away.  “You’re not gonna believe this . . .”  A smile creased my face.

Story Lines

A memory: I watch my 3-year-old son as he sits on my husband’s lap.  He looks up with a solemn expression, lifts his arm and begins to carefully trace the creases and lines in his dad’s face with his finger.  His innocent and honest child’s voice asks, “Daddy, why are there so many lines on your face?”  His dad looks into the gray-green eyes of our son and replies, “They tell the story of my life.”  Our son receives this wisdom with a nod, a smile and a simple, “Oh.”

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14 NIV

The Bible reminds us that the Word is alive and active – but do we believe it?

Before I was saved in 2011, I scoffed at the mere thought – ridiculed the idea that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and  that God speaks directly to people through the Bible.  I agreed that I, or anyone, could “get a message” from any book, but I had to wonder if I found the “message” I expected to find, or the specific “answer” I was looking for by inference.  In that time and place in my life, I considered such a message a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fast forward eight years.  I look down at the beloved Bible in my lap, touch its pebbled leather surface.  The Bible does not just tell me what to think (like a textbook), nor how to think (like a motivational book) – it speaks to me on a personal level.  When I hold the Word in my hand, I literally pick up Jesus.  I can feel the weight and faithfulness of His love.  Opening it is like crawling into the Father’s lap.  The crinkle of a turned page is His breath in my ear; the cadence of the words His heartbeat.  As I trace verses with my finger, I feel every line of His face. It tells the story of God’s life.

Groundbreaking

A couple of weeks ago I attended an informational clinic at Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch.  The ranch is nestled amongst junipers, rocks and irrigated pastures in the high desert of central Oregon, just east of the Cascade mountains.  CPYR is a ranch whose ministry offers the love and hope of Jesus Christ to children and their families – through connections and mentoring with horses.  The ranch founders and staff share “how to’s” with others considering a similar ministry.

The first pull on my heart to attend the clinic occurred about a year ago when I first read about the annual event.  I was familiar with the ranch and its mission, and I love how CPYR shares God’s love.  Yet, I did not see myself beginning a ranch or horse ministry.

Is this what you want, Lord? For me to share Your love through my horses?  I asked these questions in the ensuing months.  My heart simply told me to go, so I registered for the clinic and made my travel plans.

The clinic spanned five days of fellowship with the staff and attendees from various states and nations as we worshipped, shared meals, prayed and attended classes.  Everything pointed to Jesus!  It was wonderful!

I returned home in a sweet place of awe, wonder and gratitude for my God.  It reminded me of the early days of my faith when all I desired was to know Jesus more.  I smiled at returning to that heart place.  I still did not know exactly what lay ahead on my journey, but I knew He always has in mind His best for me. 

As I rested in that place of peace, I remembered in contrast the brokenness of my heart most prevalent in the early days of my journey – before I even knew the journey led to Jesus.  I remembered an email exchange with my horse trainer.  We had discussed the emotional trauma that was the root cause of my reaction to fear when riding my horses.  I had shared with her thoughts on facing childhood pain in a way that offered healing, rather than just “getting over it.”

One line of her response stopped my heart: “I do know that God wants you to have all that you have had stolen from you and then more.”

I remember how I read her response once, then again, and again as something in those words snagged my attention.  Wait a minute, I thought.  “God wants you to have all that you have had stolen from you and then more.”  What?  God wants for me?!  My mind got caught in a jumble of thoughts and emotions.  It felt like someone had grabbed my guts and twisted.  I thought God always wanted from me.  He was a strict disciplinarian who demanded obedience.  Stolen?!  Did she mean I had not lost a part of my childhood?!  It wasn’t my fault?  This defied all logic of what I had been taught about God, had heard through the years about a judging and vengeful God.  This was a picture of God I had never seen or considered.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:11-13 NIV)

On that heart pause, a truth broke hard ground and encouraged my heart to soften and shift.  It took another three or four months before my heart fully changed direction and I began to earnestly seek God’s heart.  Since then, I have experienced in ever-greater measure God’s love poured out in grace and mercy.  He wants for me.  He wants all He is for me.

Crossroads

Resurrection.  Restoration.  Relationship.

My husband, son and I spent my first Easter as a “born again” Christian visiting my mother, who lived 200 miles from us.  Mom and I attended Easter mass at her Catholic church.  I remember the solemnity of that first Easter service after reuniting with my God – staring up at the larger than life-sized crucifix at the front of the church.  Pangs of guilt still pulled at me back then when I thought of the price Jesus paid to restore me to right standing with God.  But, more than guilt, I felt a profound sense of gratitude for the love that endured such a horrible death for me.  As I sat while the parishioners filed up for Communion and returned to their seats, I looked up at Jesus and mouthed, “thank you.”  Silent tears ran down my face.  Mom reached for my hand and gently squeezed.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.  Isaiah 53:5

In 2014 we did not travel to visit my mother, as we most often did on holidays.  I wanted to attend Easter, Resurrection Sunday, service at my home church that year.  A cross stands at the front of our church, too, but it is an empty cross – signifying not only Jesus’ death, but also His resurrection.  I remember worship before service that Resurrection Sunday.  I stood at the area in front of the worship platform and praised my God.  I joined with the worship team as they played and sang SWEETLY BROKEN.  I sank to my knees, closed my eyes and sang my heart to God.

As I sang, I found myself kneeling in the dirt on Calvary under gray storm clouds.  Dust swirled in the wind that blew across the hilltop.  I stared up at Jesus where His battered body hung on the cross.  Trails of dried blood stained His head and face from the crown of thorns they had forced on His head.

His life; my sin.

Deep sorrow filled my heart; tears trickled down my face.

“Jesus!  What have you done?  What have you done?” My voice was a choked whisper.

Jesus opened His eyes: narrow slits in a face swollen and disfigured by the beating I knew He had taken.  He looked down on me.  “I did it for you, Love,” He said.  Then His eyes closed, and He was gone.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  John 3:16-17

I was undone by the immensity of His love – His personal and intimate love.  It was the only way.  Sobs wracked my body: pain and sorrow for what He endured and sacrificed; and gratitude, joy and love because He did it for me.

A hand gently cupped my chin and raised it.  I opened my eyes and looked up into the beautiful face of my living Lord.  He stepped back and extended His hand.  I placed my hand in His and rose to my feet.  Indeed, Jesus is alive!

Suddenly, I was singing my heart out in worship in church, again, as tears rolled down my face.

Dream Catcher

Sometimes the glitter gets rubbed off our dreams.

Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed of having a horse.  I was a city girl and there wasn’t money for a horse.  But horses exemplified freedom, and I knew if I just had a horse, I could escape all my troubles and ride off into the sunset of a life as it was meant to be.  That dream remained with me throughout my life, even as I grew up, married a wonderful man, had our son and lived a happy life.  It remained with me as Jesus healed me from a life without Him.  In fact, God has used my horse dream repeatedly to shine light in my heart, and to reveal Himself in my life.

My first horse was a gift from my husband on my 30th birthday.  Dallas was a young horse, and not a good fit for a green rider like me.  He was followed by several inexperienced horses over the years.  One of those horses threw me badly in 2009.  My neck healed from the severe whiplash I suffered, but my psyche and heart were not so quick to heal from the fear of being thrown again. I experienced some success as I worked with my horse trainers to learn to remain engaged with my horse when fear was triggered.  However, there were times when fear seemed to set in and take hold of me – as if my dream was betraying me.  Why couldn’t I get through this fear in my horse dream?!

One example of fear taking hold occurred in 2012 with my beautiful gray mare, Lily, after a couple of lessons where my lack of focus and engagement with my horse resulted in what I interpreted as belligerent behavior in her.  My trainer (and friend) reminded me that in the relationship with my horse, I had to be the adult, so Lily could trust me.  She said what I interpreted as belligerence in Lily was probably uncertainty.  So, I determined to work on being the adult in the relationship during the following week.

I took Lily out to the front yard to work her on a lunge line on Monday night.  She trotted and cantered on cue for a couple of laps, then exploded into a wild gallop around and around me.  I pulled her head toward me to try to slow her and used the whip to push her away when she faded in toward me, fearful she would kick me.  I could not release her line in the yard, lest she run into the road.  She finally tired enough that I could slow her and stop her.  She stood sweaty and exhausted at one end of the rope, while I stood sweaty, exhausted and nauseous with fear at the other end.  I waited for my heart to stop pounding in my ears and for my lungs to take in more than shallow gasps, then I gathered up the line, led her to the barn and released her into her pasture.  I sat in my barn as the day’s light waned.  I cried and prayed.

The fear and anxiety I felt brought me the closest I had ever come to my dream being crushed.  It was not just the challenge of the recurring fear or working through ineffectiveness, but also the concern that I was ruining this wonderful horse, and consequently, disappointing my trainer.  I cried out to the Lord – and what came to me was, “Trust Me, I will bring you through this.”  I did not know how, and I did not know how long it would take, but I put all my trust in Jesus, who was always faithful to me.  I knew I would try again Tuesday night.

I shared with my trainer in email what happened, and what my fears were.  She reassured me that she was never disappointed in me – that she had the utmost respect for my try and commitment; and she told me I could not ruin Lily, who was strong and resilient.  She told me to hold onto those two truths and not let the enemy steal them from me.  She also suggested that the challenges I faced went way beyond horse stuff.

Tuesday evening I walked out to Lily’s pasture to work with her.  I asked God to be with me, but I was really scared – I just needed her to not explode.  It was not much to offer my horse, but it was all I had.  Lily balked at my tentative requests, but she did not pitch a fit.  It was enough in that moment.

Wednesday morning, I reminded myself that the God who had been with me even before I believed in Him, was always with me.  He told me to trust Him.  I knew He would, once again, be my strength in getting me through whatever I was facing.  I let go my attitude of resignation in my circumstances and resolved to battle my fears.  By this I do not mean, “I’ve got this, Lord.”  What I mean is, “If this is what You call me to do, I am willing.  Lord, make me ready.”

Yet, as I stepped through the door into the garage on my way to work with Lily on Wednesday evening, I felt fear gnaw at my heart and mind.  I sat on the step and prayed, “Lord, I’m scared, but I trust you to bring me through this.”  Truly, I still did not know exactly what “this” was.  I asked for His strength to help me stand against my fear and against the enemy trying to steal my dream.  Then, a thought struck me.  I knew God was not causing my fear, but I asked Him if He wanted me to give up my dream for some reason?  I told Him I would fight against the enemy, but that if He ever asked, I would surrender my dream, though it would hurt me to do so.  And I heard again, “Trust me.”  So, I steeled myself and headed for the barn and Lily with a determined attitude.  I think Lily felt the change in me right away.  She pitched a half-hearted fit, but she willingly moved out when I pushed her through it.  We got forward: not always pretty, and not perfect, but we got it.  I thanked and praised God for the victory.  But I knew the core issue remained.

During my prayer and Bible time with God Thursday morning, and still enjoying the victory with Lily, I thought about my dreams and fears, and my growing knowledge of, and faith in, God.  Coincidentally, I had recently read an article about facing our fears and spiritual growth, which provided insight. 

The author said, “Sometimes in order to keep the dream alive we must run head on into our deepest fears.  Fighting those fears may be the hardest and most painful thing we do, but it never fails to be worth it.”  I could certainly attest to the difficulty and pain of facing and fighting my fears.

My childhood dream was freedom, represented by owning a horse – a child’s simple hope of life as it should be.  God granted me that dream in adulthood – perhaps even put the dream in my heart – even before I knew Him.  However, the dream presented challenges all along: I had experienced fears, setbacks, temporary defeat.  Yet I held to that dream.

I thought about how God had held me that week and helped me face and conquer a setback and almost crushing fear, and I suddenly realized something: the dream of freedom and that things would one day be as they should be – would not be fulfilled by my success with my horse.  I had made my horse dream a “thing.”  In fact, apparently, I had made it “the” thing upon which all else hinged.  Though I loved the Lord with all my heart, there must have been a tiny part of my wounded little girl’s heart deep inside that never gave up the idea that my horse dream was somehow tied to my healing.  I heard my friend’s words again, “What you are going through is way beyond horse stuff.”  Oh, how could I have been so blind?!  The real dream – that things would one day be as they should be– was never about horses.  The Truth:  God is the dream, the ONE thing that all else hinges on.  It was a painful, searing revelation – yet I laughed with joy for being shown the chink in my armor.

“Thank you, Jesus!” I said aloud.

I hit my knees and again surrendered all to Jesus – my hopes and dreams, my pain and fear, my family and friends, all surrendered into His care.

My horse dream had been put into perspective.  I saw that I had put WAY too much pressure on my horse and myself.  Lily finally got to be a horse, and not just a dream come true.  Did horse things suddenly become easy?  No.  I continued to struggle, and continued to experience fear on occasion, even today.  I had twisted the dream God put in my heart.  But, when I surrendered my dream to Him, He faithfully polished it and gave it back to me – and it far surpassed anything I could have imagined.  This was freedom.

Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:4

So, I can say with the greatest conviction: I am truly and gratefully living the dream every day.  When I look away or lose sight, God’s focus on me always helps me refocus on Him.

Heart Stance

I was reminded recently of our dog, Doc, who passed in March of 2016.

Doc was a red Golden Retriever we adopted from the local Humane Society three days after Christmas in 2005.  Our veterinarian determined his age at 4-5 years old.  Doc had been turned in as a stray.  He was friendly and calm, typical of the breed and his age – and he met our 16-year-old Golden female, Cody, with no issues between them.  His callused elbows suggested days spent in a concrete-floored kennel.  Over the first few days, Doc exhibited some food and water aggression issues, and when scolded, he cringed on the floor, the loose skin of his head furrowed, and eyes squeezed tight, as if waiting for a beating.

Kind treatment and plentiful food and water taught Doc that he could trust, and he overcame the need to fight for his sustenance.  We spent time with him and loved him into our family.  He became the most devoted dog that ever came into my life. He taught me many lessons about how to be a better person.

One morning in 2012, more than six years after his adoption, and about a year after I surrendered my life to Christ Jesus, I watched Doc as he lay on a well-worn spot in the carpeted hallway between the kitchen and bedrooms.  He chose to be either at my feet, or at the edge of the hallway where he could watch my movements throughout the house.  His eyes or ears picked up my every move, and his body was always ready to rise and follow me.  I smiled in gratitude for my dog and his humble example; and I prayed that I would choose to be as attentive, faithful and devoted to the Lord as Doc was to me.

Reading Luke 22 recently reminded me of Doc and his lesson of simple devotion.  In Luke 22:24, the disciples argued about which of them was greatest.

Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25-27)

I remembered my Doc ever lying nearby, and I had a deeper revelation about how God himself is both master and servant to us.  It humbled me anew that our Lord and Savior came to serve us.  And it saddened me that I so often treat my God like I treated my beloved dog.  I loved my dog, and I cared for him and set aside time for him each day to walk him and spend time with him.  But so often I went about most of my days just knowing he was there and not really paying much attention to him.  I wondered how often I do that with God?  He is the Almighty, yet He will stand by, watching me and just waiting for me to turn to Him so He can engage with me.  I asked myself what has become a regular question since putting my faith in Him: What kind of love is this?!  I am awed and humbled, again, that the God who I try to devote myself to, however imperfectly, is totally devoted to me.  Just as He is devoted to you.

Prodigal

Most of us are familiar with the story of the prodigal son – the young man who demanded his inheritance and squandered everything in wild living.  I had my own version: I discarded the God of my upbringing to a complete lack of belief in anything but my own ability to exert reason and control over the nice life I would give myself.

A few months after I committed my life to Jesus, I prayed thanks to God for a successful surgery a friend had undergone that day.  I also thanked God for bringing the friend and his family into my life – for their example of Jesus’ faithful and gentle love drew me to want to know more about Him, which led to my wanting to know Him more.

I knelt beside my bed in the dark that night (yes, just like a child in a picture), and had a very vivid memory of a recurring dream I had throughout my childhood, and on a few rare occasions as an adult.  The last time I remember having the dream was around the time my Dad died some seven months earlier.  But I had the dream that night while wide awake.

In the dream I am about ten years old, and I have sought solace by wandering the trails of the park at the end of the block I grew up on.  The wooded hills of the park created a bowl that emptied into a grassy expanse of ball-playing fields.  I wandered the trails in the woods and ran in the fields until near dinner time.  Instead of climbing the hill back to our street, I walked the long way around – a trek through the industrial park in the valley, past the supermarket, up a long, steep hill, then down an avenue toward home.  The avenue was one of the beloved streets that filled my childhood city – lined with green tunnels of elm trees that created a cathedral-like effect overhead.  I finally reached my street, turned onto it, and stopped.  My house was not in the middle of the familiar block where it belonged.  My pulse quickened along with my pace as I searched frantically for my house.  How could I be so lost on my own block?  As panic rose, I always awoke.

This time, though, I was already awake, but felt no panic. I wondered why the dream came back so vividly.

I always thought the dream reflected the insecurity I felt growing up with an alcoholic father – never knowing when he came home if Dad would be sober and nice, or drunk and surly.  But on that night, God reminded me of the lost son who eventually came home in shame and humility, and I saw something new in the dream – and then the dream departed forever.

“…. But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick!  Bring the best robe and put it on him.  Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the fattened calf and kill it.  Let’s have a feast and celebrate.  For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.  So they began to celebrate.’”  Luke 15:21-24

Such extravagance!  The parable was not about the wayward son, but about the father and his prodigious love poured out in grace and mercy!  I simultaneously laughed and cried with joy, because it is the same extravagance with which God celebrated my coming home to Him, showing me always and only love and forgiveness, joy and acceptance…. showing me that I always belonged to Him and with Him. God pours out such love for each of us.

Separation Anxiety

“But you were already a good person.  You are kind and care about people and give people the benefit of the doubt.  I just don’t get the whole Jesus thing.”

I remember how the weight of those earnest words from my friend shortly after I came to faith in God sat on my heart.  I sighed under the pressure of her statement.  I did not fully get “the whole Jesus thing” myself, so how could I explain it?

I knew intimately my many flaws, but I was usually thoughtful and kind, and I followed all the rules to the best of my ability.  Early in my life I had witnessed and experienced the pain inflicted by loved ones – pain that came from their broken places.  I tried my best to not inflict pain on others – to do the right things. 

My friend knew I had walked away from the God of my Catholic upbringing in early adulthood.  My return to faith came through my horse journey.  I could explain that as I worked through horse fear issues with my trainer, I found that the reaction to fear – disappearing inside myself – came from those childhood triggers of rejection and pain.  My trainer encouraged me to work through those root-cause issues, which I attempted through my lessons and journaling.

Introspection and journaling led me, a level-headed eternal optimist, to the end of myself – a place where the pain of a broken childhood, pain I thought I had gotten over, came crashing in on me.  I realized I had simply walled up my emotions brick by brick over a lifetime, and when they finally broke through, I found myself on the floor, buried by old hurts.  In that damp and musty place awareness dawned that I had been wrong about God.  Icy pellets of realization stung my heart – the heart in which God sowed hope and optimism; the same heart God kept soft toward others, even as I hardened it against Him; the same heart that rejected the God who had always been with me.

Guilt and shame filled me as I sat on the floor and wept.  I cried out to God that I was sorry and was so wrong about Him.  But it was too late.  I knew that. 

But you were already a good person.

It was not about me being a good person.  In fact, it was not about my goodness, at all.  Being a good person could not heal the brokenness inside.

How did I explain that in my place of deep shame and regret, that place of seemingly irreparable brokenness, I felt a comforting weight, as if the Lord stood beside me with His hand on my shoulder?  How did I explain the gentle voice that said, “It’s OK.  You’re here now.”

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39 NIV)

How did I explain the way my heart knew it was God?  How did I explain that “the whole Jesus thing” began with His relentless pursuit of a rebellious and broken child?  I could not understand nor explain that kind of love to myself, so how could I explain it to another?  I couldn’t explain it, but I received it with gratitude.  No, it had nothing to do with my goodness.  In His goodness, Jesus would not be separated from me.

Leaving the Ninety-Nine

Why Jesus?!

The question leapt from the mouth of someone very dear to me when I revealed my belief in Christ Jesus in 2012.  She suspected that I had changed my mind because either something horrible had happened to me, I had suddenly remembered some traumatic childhood event, I had been brain-washed, or I had simply lost my mind.

You see, I had been an atheist since early adulthood and had suddenly declared my belief in God at 49 years of age.  My conversion happened over the space of nearly two years, but my faith journey occurred over a lifetime – and continues today.

I struggled with my response initially.  My family had known of my unbelief, but I did not often discuss religion and faith with others.  I always figured that most people believe in God, and it was not my responsibility to make them see reason.  I was of the mind to simply agree to disagree.  In my intellectual arrogance, I was not offended by their belief – though I was happy to point out the contradictions in their faith, if they preached at me.

So, when I came to faith in Jesus, it was a radical change – both for me and for other non-believers in my life.

Why Jesus?

Truth is – He chose me.

“What do you think?  If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?  And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.  In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”   Matthew 18:12-14

Jesus chose me and pursued me as I first wandered away, and later, dramatically fled.  He pursued me with a relentless love I could not deny, try as I might.  It was only after I felt God’s physical presence, only after I began to seek Him, that I realized He had been pursuing me throughout my life.  Jesus left the ninety-nine for me.  And He will leave the ninety-nine for you, too.