Several months ago I prayed: “Something about our lives and our home feels broken; we need a change.” I haven’t posted for the last month because, in that time, my husband got a job in St. Louis that we could not at first make public; and we have been busy moving. Now that we are here (as of one week), I finally have some room to exhale, rejoice, and explain how this move answered my prayer.
When I prayed my prayer a few months ago, our lives looked pretty perfect. Buc had a good job; we had a nice house, a good church family, and a beautiful baby; and I got to stay home with that baby. But there was definitely a problem: Our family of three wasn’t “gelling” like I knew we should. We weren’t bonding and creating traditions and just “being a family” like I knew God intended.
Details like Buc’s early commute, Sam’s erratic sleep patterns, and Buc’s arrival home around Sam’s bedtime made Daddy-and-Baby time nearly impossible on weekdays. These facts also made it hard for us to eat meals together or have family outings. And for those months when Sam was waking through the night, and waking at 4 and 5 and 6 a.m. for the day, I was plumb exhausted. I had nothing left to give.
As I looked around our home, saw our neglected dogs, overgrown flowerbeds, unused backyard, and the garden Buc had failed to plant, I realized Buc had little left to give either. We were just “getting by.” We didn’t have energy to really enjoy life, and enjoy our baby, together.
You might say there was nothing deeply wrong with our setup; they were just logistical things keeping us from family time. But I would be careful about saying that. A lot of wise people have observed that it’s the little things in life—the daily patterns and routines—that make up the whole life. If we’re not careful about those little patterns that are just a degree or two off target, we will soon find ourselves far from where we originally intended to be.
Originally, we decided to have a baby because we wanted to grow our family; we wanted to create new traditions and spend time together and just be a unit. So the fact that I was doing most of this baby stage by myself, without my husband, was sort of devastating. I found myself growing resentful of my baby and even my husband, and I didn’t want to resent them. So, in addition to complaining at home a whole lot (sorry honey), I prayed.
As I prayed about our brokenness at home, Buc felt things breaking work. Situations pushed him to seek employment with another company. And he started praying too. He set forth a number of conditions that God would have to answer in order for him to move his family over 600 miles from home. Guess what? God answered every single one.
So while our church and Texas family members scratched their heads over why we were leaving such a nice life, I sighed with relief. No more breakfasts alone. No more days of waiting until 6 p.m. to talk to my husband. Perhaps some lunches together (we now live within ten minutes of Buc’s work). Perhaps some suppers out with the baby. No more yard upkeep, at least while we remain in the townhome we’ve rented. No more dogs to take care of, for now (two kind families at our Texas church adopted Bill and Ted). A much needed break from church positions that were gobbling up precious weeknights. Just…a much needed retreat from a life that had grown too busy and clumsy to facilitate a new family learning to “be a family.”
No, I’m not happy to have left all the wonderful family, church members, and friends I’ve gained in Texas over ten years, but I know this is God’s plan for us, for now. And for that, I give thanks. For me, the New Year ushers in an exciting period of growth and change, and hopefully a well maintained blog so I can document what God is doing in our little family of three, and stay connected with my friends and extended family. Happy New Year, dear readers!
What does it mean to be a born-again Christian? To read the New Testament, you’d think it means getting a whole new perspective on life, a new heart, and new behaviors along with it. Galatians chapter 5 gives a nice, quick contrast between the life controlled by the flesh, and the life controlled by the Holy Spirit. The former produces bad fruit like sexual immorality, impure thoughts, idolatry, hostility, quarreling, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, and much more. But the latter produces those famous “fruits of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (see vss. 16-26). To make it more personal, living a Spirit-filled, or “born-again,” life would mean new thoughts for the depressive (formerly me) who keeps repeating, “I just want to die” (Eph. 4:21-24; Col. 3: 1-3).
If an entire household were born-again, I suppose that would mean no more yelling at one another—no more anger and bitterness and malice. Parents would love each other and kids would respect their parents. Sabbath mornings would be joyful, not hate-filled. My parents would have stayed together—and our family would not have ended in an affair, an illegitimate child (or my beloved younger brother), a divorce, and possibly not the two older children (my brother and me) moving far, far away from a home that we came to know as a battleground. In a family that called itself Christian, how could we have gone so wrong?I believe it was because my family was not living a Spirit-filled life: we were not truly “born again.” (To read how Jesus explained rebirth and the Spirit-filled life, see John chapter 3).
I know my parents were taught doctrine (a set of biblical beliefs) before joining the Seventh-day Adventist church, but were they taught about how to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Were they taught how important it is to “be renewed in their minds”—and not just by learning information, but by internalizing God’s love for them and Jesus’ suffering and death and resurrection? When they were baptized, were they really taught what it meant to be buried with Christ—to put on love—and to die to self (Rom. 6:3-4)?
While I am tempted to blame the church for not teaching my parents these things—because the fruit in their marriage and in our family points to a “non-born-again” existence—I don’t know the answer to these questions.
Before I go any further, I should note that my dad grew up Lutheran and my mom, Catholic, so if a church or denomination is to blame for missing the “born-again boat,” several are to blame. I don’t know much about my parents’ formative experiences with church, except that Dad’s didn’t leave any notable impression on him, and Mom’s left her wanting more and better answers. She finally started to read the Bible for herself in college, only to realize that the Catholic church strayed pretty far from its teachings sometimes. (One example would be their changing of the ten commandments—deleting the second one and splitting the tenth into two.)
I know my parents, when they were newly married, came into the Seventh-day Adventist church through a Revelation Seminar, or a series of meetings that teaches esoteric prophecies in Daniel and Revelation, along with other defining doctrines of the Seventh-day Adventist church (the seventh-day Sabbath, the state of the dead, the truth about hell, the health message, etc.). I know my parents latched on to the logical presentation they saw; they couldn’t argue with the Adventists, because these people proved everything they taught straight from the Bible. I know these convincing proofs were enough to get my parents baptized.
And then my parents started doing what the Adventists did. They took my brother and me to church on Saturday and restricted what we could do on the Sabbath: no TV, no sports, no shopping or eating out from Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown. They stopped eating unclean meats, such as pork and seafood, per instructions in Leviticus. And as I grew up, these outward markers, to me, became what it was to be a Seventh-day Adventist Christian—only I didn’t think much about myself being a Christian, or a follower of Christ. I mostly thought of myself as an “Adventist,” because, it came to my attention, being “Adventist” separated me from my peers who were busy eating bacon, playing sports on Sabbath, and attending other fun events that I couldn’t.
My Fallout from Church
When I was sixteen, after Mom left with my baby brother and Dad and my older brother were angry and I was depressed, I started blatantly breaking the fourth commandment (“Thou shalt keep the Sabbath holy”) by working on Saturdays. Suddenly I didn’t care about breaking the Sabbath, because, well, why should I? I had been attending church all my life, but church hadn’t helped me any. It hadn’t saved my family.
I can’t remember if anyone tried to tell me about what it really meant to be born again: in this case, being renewed in my now-suicidal mind—or finding peace amidst the storm. Perhaps some caring adult tried to tell me, and their words fell on deaf and hurting ears. All I know is I didn’t see the Spirit-filled life, or love and joy and peace, demonstrated at home. And this brings up another crucial point.
Fruit of the Non-Born-Again Family—Plus, the Christian Pretending Game
I remember many kind church members who I think would have intervened had they known what was really going on in my home. But my parents were good at something many other Christians are: They hid our problems from the public eye. After they split up, my parents admitted that they’d always planned to divorce—but they were trying to wait until my brother and I graduated high school. When it hit the fan, not only our fellow church members, but also my brother and I, were flabbergasted that things were really that bad. Mom and Dad had played the game well.
Going back to the born-again discussion—because I think the true root of my family’s demise was that we were not born-again—my parents today admit that they entered marriage unprepared and unconverted in their hearts. I don’t ever remember Mom and Dad modeling for my brother and me daily prayer, except that we prayed before meals and sometimes before bedtime. Family devotions were non-existent. Our lifestyle, filled with sports and fiction and media and rock and country music, was very secular, except for one day a week when we put all that away to “keep the Sabbath.” So we were “Adventists.” But we were not really Christians (not really living like Christ). Which means we were really nothing but posers, because you can’t be a true Seventh-day Adventist without being a Christian, too.
Roots of a Blow-up
Learning doctrine is great, if it is biblical. I believe that Seventh-day Adventist doctrine is biblical. But if doctrine is all you have, in the end you really have nothing, as my family’s story shows. Along with doctrine, you need to have relationship—relationship with God and Jesus that transforms the way you think and live and relate to others every single day of the week. This is what I mean by being born-again.
Before shouting matches occurred in my home, we should have been dropping to our knees as a family. Before my depressive thoughts took root, I should have been planting scripture in my mind.
“We do not wage war with mere human plans or methods. But we use God’s mighty weapons, not merely worldly weapons…with these, we take captive every thought to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:3-5). What if my parents had learned, and I had learned, to take every thought captive to Christ?
Oh, what a much happier story I’d have to tell.
Instead, we went to church angry, put on plastic smiles, and then, when everything blew up, we kept those things out of sight, too. I learned to keep my depression out of sight. Then, when the façade became too farcical for me, I disappeared from church altogether.
The good news is that when your spiritual leaders fail you (possibly because they don’t know what you need, if they even know what they need), God can still get to your heart. He eventually got to mine. Sadly, it’s also true that the sins of the parents reach into the third and fourth generations—so sometimes even as we are coming back to God, it’s a murky, uphill battle. There are consequences to living opposed to God’s laws, and it can take a long time for life to smooth out again (hence my “ugly, messy” rebirth story).
Before I can tell you about the good fruit God eventually produced in me, in part three, I will expand on the lingering effects of growing up in a (church) culture where I thought it was “not okay” to ask for help—as well as the idea that there wasn’t anything inherently life-changing about Jesus, his Word, or prayer.
When I was a little girl, going to church on Saturday (because we were Seventh-day Adventist Christians), was a disaster. I was apparently in my feminist phase, and I refused to wear dresses. I used to throw tantrums. Yes, the same woman who is quiet and reserved today—the one whom many dub phlegmatic and calm—was a stomping, screaming terror.
Why were the worst days on Sabbath? And not just for me, but for my whole family? We all yelled at each other, piled into the car with frowns on our faces, and crinkled brows. We drove to church seething at one another. My parents usually still made me wear a dress…after up to an hour of screaming at me and me screaming back.
Then we got to church and acted happy—I think. Truth is, my memory has left a lot of gaps, especially of the early years, which makes it hard to write a memoir sometimes. So here’s a digression…because this is a messy testimony…
Blanking Out the Past…Because It Hurts
I’ve been writing to my roots (writing this blog and writing my memoir) for about a year, and memories of my childhood are just starting to surface. It was only in the second draft of my memoir, after my editor pushed me to go there, that I delved into my formative years. Why is this?
I think it’s because I needed time to get back there. After my parents’ divorce and my depression, my suicide attempts and my hospitalizations, the present moment—the struggle to just maintain life and just be—became all consuming. I plumb forgot about my past, bad and good.
I used my parents’ divorce and the mess surrounding it to justify my depression and my eating disorder, among other self-sabotaging behaviors. I discounted the fact that—hello—I had depressive tendencies long before my home blew up. And now we go back to the story.
In writing to my roots, I’ve uncovered the ugly truth that I was always a melancholy child. Facing the fact that the problem has always been inside me—and it didn’t come from any externals (although it was certainly exacerbated by them)—has been hard. It means I can’t totally blame the dysfunction of my early adulthood on my parents or my church or anyone else—except the enemy of my soul.
It’s hit me hard lately that he was attacking me from very early on. I always had the tendencies to stress and despondency and impossible perfection that I still blog about. I remember freaking out about doing my fifth grade Science worksheets “just right.” I remember that my sixth grade Minnesota portfolio had to excel everyone else’s. Every year of elementary, I had to beat out the other kids in the reading program.
At home, I used to rant and rave about how stressed I was, making entire days a living hell for my parents. I learned there was some power in airing all my negative thoughts—“Life sucks,” “I wish I could die”—because they got me some attention. Even when I was shut away in my room, I wallowed for hours, yelling, weeping, complaining. Everyone knew when I was in a bad mood, because it clouded the whole house.
It’s amazing to me that these messages found their way into my brain so early, and that life was sometimes too heavy to handle, even at age ten. (Satan’s that good—I mean, that bad—isn’t he?)
Okay, let me pause again. These admissions are really embarrassing, but I make them in hopes of showing how our negative roots (negative thoughts) must lead to more and more negative fruits (negative behaviors) later in life. In my case, though my outward tantrums stopped around teenage-hood, I found other ways, inward ways, to sulk. The biggest way was keeping a very negative journal from age fourteen until age twenty-five—which, though less visible to the world, still reinforced my poisonous thoughts every bit as much as my childhood tantrums.
Tantrums Change…Temperaments Don’t…or Do They?
For most of my life, I’ve classed myself as a Christian. However, after I married and entered my adult phase (which events, I think, happened in that order), it always struck me as problematic that I still lived with my negative, “please let me die” thoughts. Was this the kind of fruit a truly “born-again” Christian should be producing?
Writing on the new life in Christ we are promised when we accept Jesus as our Savior, Paul said, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom. 8:6). Romans 8:1-17 is all about living life through the Spirit, in fact, and it’s all about inward renewal, or thoughts. It tells me Jesus conquered “sin in sinful man” so that I could live not according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit (vss. 3 and 4).
The true, spirit-filled life doesn’t sound like it includes wanting to die. The “born-again” experience doesn’t seem like it has room for thoughts like, “Life sucks.” When I think back now to my life before rebirth, I see what Paul meant by his statement, “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace.”
Before I accepted Jesus as my Savior on the inside, my mind was centered on death…which tells me that, although I was “in the church,” I wasn’t really “born-again.”
In part 2, I will explore why some Christians are depressed, and why my “Christian” family eventually imploded.
There have been times in my life when a breakdown seemed imminent, and lo and behold, I had one. After those incidents, people in my life—like parents, counselors, and doctors—looked back on the circumstances surrounding the breakdown and agreed, “Yeah, it’s no wonder.” I, too, understood where those meltdowns came from.
But about six months ago when I short-circuited (not to the point of self-harm or anything, just had an incapacitating freak-out for a few days), it didn’t seem imminent. It was unexpected. And people around me would have said the same thing. Today I’m writing to try figure out: What was up with that? And is there a bigger issue (a hidden root) I need to deal with?
Most people when they look at my life wouldn’t say I’ve got a problem: They’d probably say I’m really organized and driven—not breakdown material. I’m a leader in my church and have labored for the past two years to bring others to Christ, because I was so excited when I finally found him. So, in 2011, I started a small group Bible study with the intent of providing a place for my “Christian” friends to talk about Christ. Prior to that, I noticed we didn’t really talk about him together. Go figure.
Then, I got involved with a prayer ministry called Straight 2 the Heart. I took a three-month training, co-wrote a book with the program’s mastermind, and several months later my prayer partner and I started praying with two other friends to help them experience the freedom and joy we had found.
Concurrent with my prayer training, I took on the position of music leader at church and drummed up all kinds of “great” ideas to bring our fragmented church back together. One of them was starting a choir, and another was putting song leaders into teams to create community.
Last fall, 2012, I was on a roll, doing just everything in my little power to “revive” my church, which, I thought, had grown stale. I was proud when my older brother, now a missionary, visited us and observed that our home, with its two Bible study/prayer meetings a week had become an outreach center. I basked in the glow of his approval: if you haven’t guessed, I thrive on such accolades.
Then, December came, and I had ten musical programs to line up, including the music all that month for church, and five vespers programs. Halfway through the month an out-of-state choir was to come perform, and I thought I had it all under control. I arrived at the church a safe thirty-five minutes early, or so I thought, only to be met by a disgruntled choir director who informed me I was supposed to have opened the church for them an hour in advance for set-up. She swore we’d discussed this detail on the phone, but I had absolutely no recall of it. Between setting up meetings, making phone calls, sending group emails to my Bible study and prayer groups, and coordinating choir things, my mind was too full to accommodate the memory.
It was then that I excused myself for the bathroom and broke down. In the farthest stall from the entrance, I sat and I cried and cried and cried. I started hyperventilating and couldn’t catch my breath. I called my hubby to ask what I should do. I was supposed to go out and introduce the choir in a few minutes, and I couldn’t stop crying.
Someone else ended up introducing them for me. Meanwhile, I missed almost all of Handel’s Messiah while I huddled in that bathroom stall trying to compose myself.
After December was done and I’d met my immediate commitments, I stayed home from church most of January, and I cancelled our home Bible study. People didn’t understand why I’d just quit cold turkey, and I couldn’t explain.
Making Sense of Things
Six months later, I know I had taken on too much. Not only did I take on too many jobs, but I took on the burden of other people’s salvation, and the burden of our church’s brokenness. Under the guise of “doing the Lord’s work,” I committed the sin of trying to play God himself, as if I could “save” my friends’ souls and fix my church’s issues.
I know I had the best of intentions, but now I also know I had a big problem. You see, after you’ve had a mountaintop spiritual experience, as I’d had during the prayer ministry, Satan swoops in with new wiles to trap you. After receiving so much healing, I felt on top of the world. And that’s when Satan must’ve suggested that I could make this healing happen for others. And do it in my own strength.
This week I’ve been praying about the same problem. After a bit of a ministry hiatus, I’ve been dipping back into outreach. As the church’s newly elected prayer coordinator, I’ve initiated a new prayer group at church, and as the communications secretary, I’m already dreaming big dreams for connecting our church in some new ways.
If I don’t watch out, I’ll end up barreling headfirst into another breakdown. How do I counter this good, yet bad, tendency?
Avoiding Future Breakdowns
Not long after said breakdown, I heard a sermon on Elijah’s “mountaintop” experience, after which he promptly sank into a despondent state (sounded familiar; see 1 Kings 18 and 19). The speaker said it’s common to fall low after experiencing a high, because we are worn out, and we let our guard down. Then he talked about how God actually commanded Elijah to rest for awhile, take care of himself, and then delegate work to someone else (shortly thereafter, he passed his prophetic mantle to Elisha).
This idea about resting after a strenuous effort was advice I needed to hear. So was the part about delegating. And it also reminded me of some other Bible passages I’d already read on this subject.
As I pondered this topic, God brought to mind the story in Exodus where he actually commanded Moses to dole out his work to seventy elders. I also remembered how the early apostles doled out food preparation duties when their numbers were growing rapidly so they could devote themselves to prayer and ministry of the word (Acts 6:3, 4). I also stumbled on other verses that encouraged me, such as Matthew 9:38 and Ephesians 4:11-13, which tell me God has a specific, special work for me—and it doesn’t include doing everything I theoretically and possibly could do for the Lord, or the church.
So how do I avoid future breakdowns?
Now I know that answer has something to do with delegating, taking some pressure off myself. And I know it also entails homing in on my specific appointed work from God and not getting sidetracked by any and every possible thing I could do for God, because then I’d never get a break (except when I break down!).
I also need to keep praying, to uproot the false beliefs that keep telling me I have to do it all. And I have to keep praying for God to reveal why I feel the need to control things—and I have to let him release me. Like every growing and healing experience, this one will take time.
I walked in the church, scanned the pews for a place to sit, and found tears in my eyes.
You know that story in the Bible where God opens the servant’s eyes to see the army of horses and flaming chariots surrounding him? His eyes were opened to see what had been all around him all the time—and suddenly he didn’t feel so alone anymore (2 Kings 6:14-17).
Well, God opened my eyes last weekend. For several months I’d been ruminating on how alone I felt. And it seems I never miss an opportunity to tell my readers that I’m 1,000 miles from home. Indeed, writing to my roots has revealed that I often feel displaced in my new home, and I feel even more that way when visiting my old home.
Being in a hiatus from work and school has also laid some things bare: I don’t know who I am without my work. Sometimes I don’t know how to relate to people outside of the most functional of activities: I can be a teacher, a sister-in-law, a communications secretary and music leader for church, a Bible study leader for friends.
But what about just a friend?
I can tell you right now, friendship—hanging out, relaxing, shooting the breeze—none of these have been my strengths.
Yet despite all the off-putting, prickly parts of me, God has drawn friends to me. And at the church that day, I saw them.
There was Tasha sitting in the back left pew of the church. Her friendship was a carryover from the small group Bible study my hubby and I had for a year and a half. We still get together often, for fun things like spa days, iced tea, and girl talk.
Then, a few rows up, was Tammy, a new-ish fixture in our church, who responded to the call I made in October to start a choir. Now she has taken the reins, much relieving me, and also become a fun girlfriend.
Across the aisle were Ashley and Christina, two young moms whom I’d only recently come to know from our Tuesday night prayer group. They’d been in the congregation for many months before their lovely personalities were uncovered for me. Both sincere and searching for the Lord, they responded to the opportunity to pray with Amanda and me, who had recently been trained in prayer ministry.
And behind them was Amanda. I had known Amanda the longest of any of these ladies, yet until our prayer training, I’d hardly known her all–had not seen the beauty of her personality beneath her quiet exterior. Now we are prayer partners and buddies in ministry.
How did it come to be that I was so blessed with all these friends?
Last summer when Amanda and I joined the prayer ministry Straight 2 the Heart to lay our hearts bare before God and our small group—I saw that we had a lot in common. A lot of hurt, a lot of self-protections, and a lot of desire to serve the Lord if we could only know how to channel our pain into something positive.
Looking back, I think it must have been the laying bare of my heart before God and a trusted small group that allowed me to be more authentic with these others that have decided they like my company. Sure, I’m still detail-oriented and serious when I talk church business. But over the past year, I’ve had more frank and open conversations with ladies in my church than I’ve had in eight years combined.
Sharing my heart in a prayerful, supportive environment has bound me together with Amanda, and now Ashley and Christina, in a way that mere biblical instruction can’t. And as a result, I have been able to relate more authentically to others like Tammy and Tasha, and even my music committee in meetings, where we have finally started talking openly and corporately about issues our church has had for a number of years.
Showing some vulnerability not only to my prayer partners but also to my acquaintances has opened the door for conversation that goes beyond surface level…and finally, friendship.
Since deciding to be more honest with others, it’s been a relief not to have to hide my feelings—to be able to speak up when something’s on my heart—to get it out in the open and deal with it sooner rather than later. And saying things that have gone unspoken before—such as on music committee—has actually gotten people thanking me for my honesty and openness.
Do people prefer pretenses, or plainness?
While being honest can open up some uncomfortable cans of worms, in my experience, that’s not any worse than tiptoeing through church—and through life—not knowing and not being known by anyone. Being honest is no worse than feeling alone—wondering if I’m the only one who ever suffers.
As I’ve learned, the sooner we share our stories with someone and listen to theirs in return, the sooner we are brought out of our self-centered misery. The sooner our eyes are opened to the fact that we are not alone.
I’m so thankful for my friends in high places, the old no less than the new (although this post just happened to be inspired by the new). Much love to all! Here’s to many more great memories!