My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story: Conclusion

After giving my life to God, I was always on the lookout for tools to share my faith. I didn’t feel I was particularly good at this part of the Christian life, and I thought it was because I hadn’t yet found the right method. Enter Paul Coneff and The Hidden Half of the Gospel.

Paul  conducted a week of prayer at my church in the spring of 2012, and after just the first night, I knew his message was special: I sensed it might even be the missing link in my life and ministry, this “hidden half” of Jesus’ story. So, what was it? And how, if I’d been in church almost my entire life, had I missed it?

Lindsey HH Cover MasterThe Hidden Half of the Gospel

Paul began his presentation with a question: “What did Jesus do more of while on this earth: Teaching or healing?”

Healing was the obvious answer. Then Paul asked, “Why have we [churches and Christians] reversed Jesus’ model of ministry? Why do we do more teaching than healing, when he did more healing than teaching?”

He continued, “Now let’s say that I am sitting in my office and I am studying for a sermon. Some church member comes in and says, ‘I have been struggling with guilt and shame from an abortion.’ Is it easier to turn to that messiness and brokenness of her life, or is it easier to do a Bible study on the character of God? Give her some scriptures on forgiveness and say, ‘You know God has forgiven you,’ pray with her a thirty-second prayer, and walk away. Which is easier?”

His point? Many churches, and Christians, don’t know how to handle messy problems like this one (other common examples being pornography addiction, abuse, eating disorders, infidelity, and cutting ), so we don’t–meaning we don’t offer the help so many people need. He went on to prove his point with a concept he calls the “cycle of sin-and-forgiveness.” Many Christians come into the church and get forgiveness for their sins, only to fall back into their patterns of sin. Then they ask for forgiveness, but continue to sin, again and again and again. (In my own experience of praying with women, I’ve also seen a pattern of wallowing in guilt over past sins that the person is no longer committing.) Paul continued. “Why is it that so many Christians who have accepted the ‘good news’ of Christ still are not free?”

family-fighting
Photo Credit: Peacefulparenting.com

I was riveted. Exactly! I said to myself, remembering how my parents had been wooed into the church with lots of good information and had gotten baptized, only to leave our family scattered and scarred by an affair and divorce (see parts 1, 2, and 3).

For the first time, I saw my problems standing stark naked in church, and I was desperate to know: How can the church address these issues?

The Hidden Half of the Gospel is how Paul addressed them. This is a message I would come to know well when Paul later asked me to cowrite his book of the same title.

Two Pillars

There are two pillars to The Hidden Half:

lies
Here is a worksheet that can help you identify the lies Satan may be planting in your mind. I was able to recognize which lies applied to me because they were “thoughts” that ran through my head on a regular basis.

1. The root of our sin and suffering is Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44). This concept of roots is huge in Paul’s ministry. As Paul explained, all our negative behaviors and patterns are merely fruits of deep-seeded roots, or lies, planted by Satan. We cannot fix the fruits unless we first attack the roots. Thus, healing begins by identifying the Satanic lies driving our behavior. Once we know the roots, or the lies, we can take those to Jesus and let him deal with them, which leads to pillar 2.

2. The root of our healing and freedom is Jesus, our Suffering Messiah (Luke 9:22; Rev. 5:5; Col. 2:15; Isa. 53). The suffering of Jesus is the crux of The Hidden Half of the Gospel, and the key to our healing.

As Paul explained, many churches have overlooked this crucial aspect of Jesus’ gospel, instead choosing to focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection. The death and resurrection take care of forgiveness of sins, but often merely believing in and accepting these concepts doesn’t resolve suffering, or the cycle of sin-and-forgiveness. Putting “suffering” back into the definition of the gospel, as Jesus explained it to his disciples (see Luke 9:22), offers hope to those of us stuck in suffering—depression, abuse, addiction, etc.—because it means Jesus didn’t just nail our sins to the cross, but he also nailed our suffering there, as well. The Bible tells us Jesus “suffered and was tempted in every way” that we are tempted, to offer us help when we suffer and are tempted (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:14-16).

Why Jesus Had to Suffer

Photo from http://trutheran.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-burdens-of-sin-and-suffering.html
Photo from http://trutheran.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-burdens-of-sin-and-suffering.html

“Have you ever thought about why Jesus’ story had to be so gory?” Paul asked the audience.

I really hadn’t.

“Well, think about it.” Paul continued. “Jesus was abandoned; betrayed; physically violated; shamed and humiliated; and verbally, mentally, emotionally, and physically abused. Now, do you think He understands the pain that abuse victims feel? Does He understand when a parent abandons a child? Was He ever tempted to numb His pain?

“He suffered all these things and more so He could identify with us. So that he could understand every way we are sinned against, and every form of self-protection we develop in order to numb our pain.

Here is a list of some of the experiences Jesus went through (from the prayer card used during Straight 2 the Heart prayer sessions).
Here is a list of some of the experiences Jesus went through (from the prayer card used during Straight 2 the Heart prayer sessions).

“What’s more, he suffered these temptations  and triumphed over them, which means that when we take time to connect our stories with Jesus, to pray and meditate on what it means that he suffered for us, and became sin for us, we can experience his victory.”

By this time, I was hooked. I wanted this in my life. I wanted a ministry that was relevant to the suffering I’d experienced, and that which I saw all around me.

So I signed on for Paul’s seven-phase, thirteen-week discipleship program. That’s right. A thirteen-week program. This wasn’t any “quick fix.” It was going to be an intense period of praying on a consistent basis, first for myself (to get more healing in my own life before I was expected to pass it on–a requirement of Straight 2 the Heart Ministries) and then for others. I was going to learn at the feet of Jesus (and the seat of Paul Coneff) for an extended period of time, sort of like the first disciples, before I set out to make more disciples.

Discipleship, Small-Group Style

Paul (right) training Mary to lead Charles through prayer.
Paul Coneff (right) training Mary to lead Charles through prayer.

Paul spent the next four months with five of us, discipling us—praying with us, and training us to pray with others. And not quick, clean, thirty-second prayers. These were deep, messy prayer sessions that first asked Jesus to identify our negative roots, and then helped us connect our stories to Jesus’ story. It didn’t end there. We delved deeper, praying, “Lord, what else do you want me to know about these roots in my life? What blessings or barriers are there in these areas?” The prayers were recursive, connecting our stories to Jesus, then having us stop and listen to the Holy Spirit so he could take us one layer deeper into our negative roots. Always, by the end of the prayer sessions, which dredged up long-buried hurts and often tears, Jesus revealed blessings, too. He always brought to mind His promises to combat the negative roots our praying was churning up.

Our training ended, with the goal being that we would start more small groups in our church, beginning with a few men and women, hopefully to grow as disciples multiplied.

My Gateway to New Life at Home, at Work, and in Ministry

My life intersected with Paul Coneff’s message and ministry, Straight 2 the Heart, when I was at a crossroads in my life. I was coming up against the age of thirty, and was finding that pursuing my “chosen” path, graduate school to become a professor, was leaving me feeling empty. Here’s a summary of how God has since rerouted my plans through this life-changing prayer ministry.

Facing Remaining Negative Roots

tree roots
Photo Credit: “Exposed Tree Roots” by Colin Brough

First, Straight 2 the Heart has helped me to be honest about areas in my life that weren’t all healed yet (some of which are still in progress) such as:

  • Anger at the premature loss of my childhood family and, well, my childhood.
  • Resentment at my husband’s happy family (and any happy family).
  • Disillusionment with my church and religion because it “did not help me” in my time of crisis. Straight 2 the Heart helped me to see that my church didn’t help me because it didn’t know how—also, because I didn’t let them know I needed help in the first place. (It also provided the answer for how churches can help, when they have the right tools.)
  • My pattern of trying to control my life in my own strength so it would never get out of control again (or my attempts to never repeat my past depression, suicide attempts, broken family, etc., through over-planning, becoming over-busy, and more).
  • My avoidance of having kids out of the above need to maintain control.

Gaining Deeper Healing 

Second, Straight 2 the Heart has led to more healing for those negative roots in these ways:

  • The decision to let go of the “safe,” but wrong career path of academia.
  • The decision to finally pursue the identity God has for me, which has translated into sharing my story through writing and even teaching. This blog, my memoir-in-progress, and Paul’s and my forthcoming book, The Hidden Half of the Gospel, are all examples of me sharing my story for God’s glory.
  • The decision to have a baby.DSC_7783
  • The decision to be honest with other women, to reach out and accept relationships I had avoided but desperately needed (See my post “Friends in High Places”)
  • I am gaining more appreciation for my church as I look past its flaws (every church has flaws) and see the human beings there. Since deciding to be vulnerable with my own story, I’ve connected with many of these dear people in meaningful ways.  I am getting the authentic “fellowship of believers” experience I missed as a child, when my family was intent on covering up its problems.

Taking the Next Step in Ministry

S2Hlogo
Photo Credit: Cristina Coneff

Third, Straight 2 the Heart has helped me learn how to have a really relevant ministry, or how to help others who are stuck in negative places and patterns like those I’ve suffered. (It is through making Jesus’ gospel relevant to the everyday struggles of life—boldly connecting our messiness to Jesus Christ’s suffering and his full gospel to “heal the brokenhearted and set the captives free.”)

  • My partner in prayer ministry, Amanda, and I, prayed two new young women (now dear friends) through the thirteen-week prayer process, which helped lead them to lots of healing—and baptisms in our church!
  • Amanda and I also trained women at a neighboring church to facilitate the same thirteen-week prayer and discipleship process in their congregation.
  • With the help of Amanda and Mary, our other cohort from our initial 13-week training, I facilitated a third prayer group, consisting of around ten ladies, in my home for several months last fall. This group resulted in amazing healing for many of these women (for marital, parental, and other common problems) as well as facilitating much needed connection between these lovely, but often isolated church ladies.
  • Now I am working on rendering the miracles we saw in these women willing to be honest with one another and with God into the closing scenes for my memoir. I want my story to testify to how one changed life can ripple out to other lives, and still more lives from there. This is what discipleship is all about.

Now, what I’ve left out of my rebirth story (and there’s lots I’ve left out), I am working on telling in my memoir. Why did I call this my “ugly, messy” rebirth story? If you consider a real birth (and I’ve been considering it a lot lately), it’s a messy process. It’s no small thing when a new physical life is created—and the same is true for a new spiritual life. The creation of a life, and the re-creation of a life, are not simple or easy processes. At times they are painful, ugly, and messy—but to get to the birth, or the rebirth, they are necessary. That’s why I have unapologetically included the ugliness and messiness in my story—along with its beauty. Without either, my story would be incomplete.

 Read part 1      Read part 2      Read part 3     Read part 4      Read Part 5    Read Part 6

To read more about The Hidden Half of the Gospel, see the following articles Paul and I wrote on the subject:

“The Fruit and Root of Freedom from Addictions” Part 1

“The Fruit and Root of Freedom from Addictions” Part 2

To schedule Paul to speak at your church or to facilitate a discipleship group, contact him at www.straight2theheart.com.

And if you want to get a copy of our book, The Hidden Half of the Gospel: How His Suffering Can Heal Yours, follow this blog to be notified later this spring when the book is published!

My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story, Part 6

Photo Credit: "Friends Talking" by Lusi
Photo Credit: “Friends Talking” by Lusi

One surefire way to tell you’ve been “reborn” is the desire to share your faith with others. On the other hand, if the idea of “sharing your faith” turns you off or even terrifies you, that’s a good sign you haven’t been reborn. For most of my life, born “Christian” though I was, that was my experience: I didn’t know what to share, and I didn’t know how.

After my “Damascus Road Year” (see part 5), for the first time in my adult life, I had abiding joy and peace, which led to faith. Finally, I had something to share. Now, I just had to figure out how to share it.

In the four years since my conversion, I’ve decided we born-again Christians can share our faith in two ways: implicitly, and explicitly.

Sharing Faith Implicitly

First, we can share our faith implicitly by living out our new identities in Christ. If we’ve truly been reborn, then our daily lives—our habits, our behaviors, our interactions with others—will naturally witness to Jesus Christ, because we will be emulating him. If we are following Jesus, we will not be living like the rest of the world, and people will take notice.

For example, after my conversion, my public high school students started to ask me questions about my faith, even advice about faith-related matters: “Why don’t you drink?” “Why do you go to church on Saturday?” “What do you think about marriage?” “How can I make my boyfriend see that prayer is an important part of the Christian life?” These questions came without me explicitly stating my beliefs—but I didn’t need to, because my behavior showed me to be different from most of the other teachers.

Sharing Faith Explicitly

Second, we can share our faith explicitly in a variety of ways, depending on our personalities. Note: This form of sharing does not come in a “one-size-fits-all” box. Unfortunately, some churches, preachers, and Bible teachers, try to make us feel like witnessing should look the same for everyone, thereby making some of us (i.e., those of us who don’t fit the traditional mold) feel like failures before we’ve even begun.

Two years prior to my conversion, I was the victim of one such discipleship training that was intended to prepare me to give Bible studies at the end of eight weeks. But after eight weeks, I was no more ready to give Bible studies than I’d been at the beginning, for two reasons. One: I hadn’t yet met the Lord personally (though I was active in my church and looked “good” on the outside), and two: the type of ministry wasn’t right for me.

The first fatal flaw of the training was that it didn’t show me how to have a personal experience with Christ before asking me to spread that experience to others. To its credit, the training frontloaded the concept of preparing our hearts for ministry. The speaker said we should deal with our own baggage before we try to minister to others—but she didn’t really explain or model how, exactly, I was supposed to rid myself of that “old man”—AKA my baggage. When I began the training, I was still depressed and self-centered, and it’s pretty hard to testify to Jesus’ redemptive power in that state of mind. Unfortunately, after the first night, it was assumed we were ready to learn how to “share our faith” with others. And that brings me to the second fatal flaw.

Photo Credit: "Hands on West Africa" from imbstudents.org
Photo Credit: “Hands on West Africa” from imbstudents.org

This training only presented one way of how to share my faith, as if that were the only way. I don’t want to unduly pick on my religion, but since it’s the one I know, it gets to be the example. In the Seventh-day Adventist tradition, the ol’ standby for sharing faith is knocking on doors and offering Bible studies. For Adventists, and probably a lot of other Christian religions, Bible studies equate to a series of topical handouts that progress through our beliefs by way of Q and A—with plentiful Bible verses listed to help answer the Q’s.

Let me be clear: I don’t think these studies are bad. I think they definitely have their place, especially for those who are completely new to the Bible. But when it comes to sharing my faith, these studies do not appeal to me. That’s because I did not personally or experientially come to know Jesus through these types of studies, and I find it hard to believe that others could, either (though I’m sure it’s happened).

When it comes to explicitly sharing our faith, we should choose a method we can be passionate about; it’s important that we honor our personalities, choosing and using a method that speaks to us. If you’ve found the Lord and are excited to share him, yet you’re still not sure how to do that explicitly, learn from my experience. Perhaps you just haven’t stumbled upon the right method yet.

Bible Study Bummer

When it came time to start my “explicit” phase of ministry, I knew who I wanted to reach out to—my friends and peers from church—but I didn’t know how. After a lifetime in the Adventist church, the only thing I could think was traditional Bible studies…so that’s basically what I did.

Now, I didn’t start with our prefabricated lesson studies, which usually progress through a series of doctrines. I wanted to focus more on the heart, because I believed that, more than head knowledge, my friends and peers needed a heart experience with the Lord—or what I’d recently found. So, I picked a book about having a heart experience, John Dybdahl’s Hunger: Satisfying the Longing of Your Soul, and made study guides for our meetings. My heart was in the right place, but my approach was wrong.

Photo Credit: "Small Group Bible Study" from manuscriptBiblestudy.com
Photo Credit: “Small Group Bible Study” from manuscriptBiblestudy.com

I had designed the studies similar to my high school handouts, complete with fill-in-the-blank answers. That’s a good way to short circuit good discussion and sometimes independent thought. As for prayer? By now I had somewhat of a vibrant personal prayer life (it involved a lot of writing to God in my journal), but I didn’t know how to facilitate really effective public prayer. So I duplicated the format we used at church: I asked for praises and then prayer requests. We went around the circle, said our praises and prayer requests, and then one person prayed, thanking God for the praises, listing the requests, and asking God to guide the study. It was a fine prayer, but it wasn’t going to result in hearts being transformed.

Despite my ineptitude, our Bible study consistently drew a crowd. I could tell my friends enjoyed coming (was it because I fed them?); and I even made some new, dear friends. I wasn’t running a particularly great study, but God brought blessings out of it (and therein is a lesson). However, after a year and half, I wanted something better. I’d read Trish Ryan’s Christian memoir, He Loves Me, He Love Me Not, and her small group was, as I read it, much more effective than mine. She wrote of things like group intercessory prayer that resulted in many heart conversions. It was then that I began to feel like a failure in ministry—and had my “Unexpected Breakdown” (check out what happened in this post that got me freshly pressed).

After two years of being on fire for the Lord, I burned out. After giving so much to my friends and to the church, I felt bankrupt myself.

Now about to finish a master’s degree and no longer sure I wanted to pursue a doctorate (would spending so much time in grad school be to bypass another calling the Lord had for me?) I needed to find strength again. I also needed (but didn’t know it) more healing for the roots of my former depression.

In the conclusion, learn about the prayer ministry that not only helped me heal, decide to have children, and decide to change career courses, but also taught me how to witness “straight to the heart.” It is the same prayer ministry that laid the groundwork for Writing to my Roots.

 Read part 1      Read part 2      Read part 3     Read part 4      Read Part 5

My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story, Part 5

Photo Credit: from ubdavid.org
Photo Credit: from ubdavid.org

For a long time I waited to have the type of “Damascus Road” conversion that the Apostle Paul had. I wanted a cataclysmic experience to bring me to God, once and for all. Maybe I should have been careful what I wished for!

As I wrote in part 4, I was about to start my second year of teaching when my mom—who already had cancer—was hospitalized for bipolar disorder, and my little brother went into foster care. Because my hands were tied with one-hundred adolescents, one-thousand miles away, I fell to my knees and pleaded for God to do something. And he did.

Oh, but he didn’t change my outward situation–or my mom’s, or my brother’s–at least not at first. First, he changed me—from the inside out.

My Damascus Road Year

I believe that God is always growing those who seek him. While we don’t always sense our growth, sometimes we experience “growth spurts.” That year was my first spiritual growth spurt. With God’s leading, and with a little help from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I was forming all kinds of good habits in my life.

By far the most important habit I formed that year was the habit of daily prayer and Bible study.

Photo Credit: "Bible Collage 4" by ba1969
Photo Credit: “Bible Collage 4” by ba1969

Next, I began memorizing Scripture so that, when negative thoughts came, I could re-set my mind on God’s promises. Without even having to think about it, I started pondering Scripture throughout the day and conversing with God. In turn, he responded to me by bringing certain Bible verses to mind that I had memorized.

Again, without my having to work at it, the words that I spoke, in conversation and in prayer, started to change. Rather than counting my losses, I started counting my blessings. My journaling naturally took a more thankful tone, too, as I wrote about how I was experiencing “happy days” like never before.

After allowing God’s words to take root in me for several months, I was generally not depressed anymore. When sad days came, I fought them off by reciting Scripture and reading the Word.

And that is the key to rebirth: we cannot changes ourselves, but God’s “living and active” Word must change us (Heb. 4:12-13). If there is one thing we can do, we can avail ourselves of the Word and prayer.

More Spiritual Fruit

Photo Credit: blog.zap2it.com
Photo Source: blog.zap2it.com

Not only were my devotional habits changing, but so were many other aspects of my life. During this time, I heard a pivotal sermon all about monitoring what we put into our minds and bodies. The speaker, evangelist Leo Schreven, raised tough questions for Christians, such as: Why do we listen to, read, and watch the same kinds of materials that the “world” listens to, reads, and watches?

As Schreven pointed out, so much of mainstream media and entertainment is opposed to Christian principles, such as the many pop, country, or rock songs crooning of infidelity. What about TV shows and movies fraught with violence? He pointed out that there is so much “trash” around us, yet we Christians sift through it as if through a dumpster, always hoping to find something halfway decent—instead of doing the sensible thing and avoiding the trash altogether.

Input, Output: By Beholding, We Become Changed

As a recovering depressive, this point hit me hard. I was beginning to realize that a large part of my depression came down to my thought patterns—and many of my post-adolescent thought patterns were determined by the music I listened to, the books I read, and the things I watched.

Photo Credit: "Man Watching TV" at www.digitaltrends.com
Photo Credit: “Man Watching TV” at http://www.digitaltrends.com

There was a reason I often felt cranky after watching secular movies or reading secular books: They were not uplifting. Even cute, seemingly harmless chick flicks left me desiring a more glamorous life, a more “storybook” marriage, a prettier figure, and a more successful career. In other words, they were leading me to desire almost everything but a relationship with the Lord.

Moreover, I realized with horror that when I listened to music with depressing or even suicidal lyrics (the band Evanescence came immediately to mind), I was cooperating with Satan by meditating on self-destructive thoughts.

Now I was beginning to understand why my older brother had tossed out his entire CD collection after his own rebirth experience. I realized these seemingly “harmless” hobbies are really insidious tools of the devil to speak lies to us.

Photo Credit: Jonah Bayer
Photo Credit: Jonah Bayer

So I threw out my CD collection, too—the bad part of it. For a time I stopped reading novels and switched completely to the Bible and self-help books (this was an odd and confusing thing for an English major to do). I also separated myself from certain friends (sadly, self-professed “Christians”) who habitually exposed me to R-rated movies. I knew these changes were all necessary to cleanse and fortify my sinful, depression-prone mind.

The other conviction I felt was a need to reach out to my friends, many of whom called themselves Christians, but who, like me, did not live like it. Why, if we were “Christians,” did we never come together to talk about Christ? The only times we got together, we watched secular movies and did other non-Christ-centered things. I made it a goal to start a young adult Bible study for these beloved friends.

Crisis Resolved

All of these changes were happening in me while Mom was in the mental hospital, my little brother in foster care, and myself tied up with teaching, 1,000 miles away from them. Later that fall, Mom was mentally stable and discharged from the hospital, and by November, she had my little brother back. The remaining unknown was Mom’s cancer.

Meanwhile, I marveled at how God was sustaining me. I believe God carried me on high that year, helping me soar above situations that could have otherwise devastated me.

The One Who Sustains

The truth is, no matter if we think we are sustaining our lives, God is the one who sustains. We couldn’t even breathe without him. We may think we’re the ones moving our lives forward—but we can do nothing of ourselves. The Apostle Paul wrote, “[God] himself gives all men life and breath and everything else,” and “It is God who works in you to will and to act of his good purpose” (Acts 17:25; Phil. 2:13). Jesus Christ, while he lived on this earth in human flesh, even said, “Of myself I can do nothing.”

On the Other Side of Hardship

Photo Credit: "Glass Tears" by Man Ray
Photo Credit: “Glass Tears” by Man Ray

Ever heard this saying?

Sometimes you have to be knocked flat on your back to look up.

I believe that God uses trials to get our attention. I’m not saying he causes bad things to happen, but he uses bad things to make us stop and realize how powerless we are. Without facing trials, we tend to get haughty, thinking we don’t need God. It is when we are knocked flat on our backs that we have to face the truth: we can do nothing without God.

After God has broken us, he can use us: “Before I was afflicted, I went astray. But now I obey your word” (Ps. 119:67). While most of us would never ask for hardships, sometimes they are the best things that can happen to us. The Apostle Paul recognized this. Knowing that “God’s strength is made perfect in weakness,” Paul said, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor. 12:9). But what if we don’t have this attitude?

A Mature Faith

Please note: It is not natural to “boast about weaknesses,” or to thank God for hardship. It is only a mature person who can recognize the blessing in trials, and only a mature faith that can observe: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death” (2 Cor. 7:10).

When hardships come, we will either experience godly sorrow, or worldly sorrow. One type of sorrow sees hardship as an opportunity to lean on God and grow, and the other sees it as a life-ender; that was me in parts 1, 2, and 3.

So what am I to make of those years when I tried to pray but did not feel God’s presence? Looking to James, I think the answer has something to do with developing perseverance. James says, “[T]he testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything….” (James 1:2-4).

Sometimes we are not ready to receive the things of God. “The carnal [or worldly] mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so” (Rom. 8:7). I would substitute the word “immature” for “carnal.” My immature mind was not ready to submit to God—plus, I was in so much pain, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.

Photo Source: www.cafemom.com
Photo Source: http://www.cafemom.com

Why do some of us have to go through more pain than others to “get it”? I don’t know. I just know that, on the other side of pain, there can be great joy. “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).

As the writer of Hebrews said, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (12:10-12).

This is how we know we have matured spiritually: when we can thank God for our trials.

After we have experienced a rebirth, how do we share our experience with others? Read part 6 to find out what worked (and what didn’t) for me.

Read part 1      Read part 2      Read part 3     Read part 4

My Ugly, Messy Rebirth Story, Part 4

While still in college, like many students, I was forever trying to figure out what career to pursue. But it wasn’t just about figuring out a career: I felt panic at the thought of college ending with nothing waiting for me on the other side. I needed a plan after college, because I still didn’t trust myself with free time. (Having kids was definitely out, because I couldn’t fathom passing along my dysfunction to another generation—much less the responsibility that comes with children.)

Photo Credit: "Reading Outdoors" by Lusi
Photo Credit: “Reading Outdoors” by Lusi

So, during my senior year of college, I spent many mornings at my kitchen table, praying: “God, what do you want of me? Why am I here? Why don’t I feel your peace? When is life going to get better?  And what the hell am I supposed to do when I graduate?”

For all my praying, I didn’t notice any response from God–except for the fact that I got only one job offer: teaching at a rural Texas high school. Feeling insecure and unprepared, I took the job.

Teaching Troubles

Photo Credit: "Young Woman Teacher" at kevinmccullough.townhall.com/blog
Photo Credit: “Young Woman Teacher” at kevinmccullough.townhall.com/blog

Teaching that first year became all about performance. The demands of the job, along with the sassy attitudes of my freshmen, sent me home every day exhausted and on the brink of tears. I lost sleep, I lost weight, and I lost confidence.

I woke early many mornings with knots in my stomach. I remember paging through the Psalms at 4 a.m. looking for comfort, but I never felt comforted. Every day the stress began all over again; I didn’t feel God’s hands guiding. Instead, I only sensed myself fumbling through the dark from August until June.

But somehow, I made it through the first year—and even agreed to come back for a second.

Hindsight and Foresight

During the summer, I couldn’t make much sense of what had gone on the previous year, except that I knew I could not repeat that year again. I resolved to plan ahead as much as I could for year two. There would be no more frantic school nights wondering what to teach the next day; there would be no more “dead” time during class. The students might still act up, but it wouldn’t be for lack of preparedness on my part.

7 habits 2
For more information, visit https://www.stephencovey.com/7habits/7habits.php

In July, my older brother, Kyle, suggested I read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which I did.

A note on my brother: for a few years, I’d been noticing a change in Kyle that had me wanting what he had. When I was twenty-one, I’d first seen it: I’d walked in on him kneeling fervently in prayer—prayer that lasted over thirty minutes—and I’d heard him talk about his new relationship with God. He’d even prayed with me, looked up Bible verses with me, and encouraged me to “give it all to God” so I could find peace. But try as I might, I couldn’t find that dynamic God-relationship he’d found. Maybe I was doing it wrong; maybe I didn’t know how to pray properly. Whatever the case, as I read The Seven Habits, I felt myself come alive: here were concrete steps I could take not only to get my classroom in order, but maybe my life, too.

I began putting the habits to work immediately in my lesson planning: I was being proactive (habit 1) by starting well before the school year began; I was beginning with the end in mind (habit 2) by defining goals I wanted my students to reach by the end of the year. I was so taken with the seven habits, in fact, that I decided to make them my first unit of the school year. I ordered an audio presentation on The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens to play for my students, and I made powerpoints to go along with each segment. By August, I had a three-week unit ready to go, and I was excited for the year to begin.

But one week before it did, crisis hit.

Testing Time

I was notified that back in Minnesota my mom had gone off her bipolar meds and my ten-year-old brother, Caleb, had been put in a group home. To make matters worse, Mom had recently been diagnosed with cancer and was not accepting conventional treatment. Now, there was no way she would seek the medical help she needed—for either malady. In the past when I got this kind of news, I typically retreated to a solitary place and cried until I regained composure–sometimes I was incapacitated for days.

This time, I didn’t have that luxury. Now, I was one-thousand miles away from the problem and had one-hundred students to lead and guide. It was no time to collapse—except to collapse to my knees.

Photo Credit: "Young Woman Praying" from blogs.voices.com
Photo Credit: “Young Woman Praying” from blogs.voices.com

Oh Lord! I prayed. I feel so helpless! What is going to happen to Mom? What’s going to happen to Caleb? Is she going to die? Is he going to be left to foster care, or stuck with his drunk dad? God, I am lost right now. I’m so scared!

Lord, I don’t know what any of us are going to do, especially Caleb. Oh please protect Caleb! Please shield him from this somehow—he shouldn’t have to go through this. But I am not there to save him, and I cannot go to him right now. Oh Lord, HELP!

I cried myself to sleep that night, and when I woke intermittently, my stomach souring each time the reality washed over me, I began praying all over again: Help, Lord, please. Just please…help.

An Answered Prayer

Somehow I began my school year on the right foot. The students were responsive to the seven habits, and I fed off their energy. Six times each day for the first three weeks, I listened to the audio presentation about forming effective habits—and the material bore into me. I learned that it takes about three weeks to form a habit, and at the end of our three-week unit, I realized I’d formed a habit of my own: morning prayer and Bible study.

Driven to my knees by my utter helplessness at fixing the family drama, I was praying like never before. I had also started reading my daily Sabbath school lesson—the study guide put out by the Seventh-day Adventist church—and the Bible. Amidst a backdrop of uncertainty, I took comfort in the routine of reading God’s word in the quiet morning hours. I began talking to him during my commute, telling him my fears and concerns like he was my friend. And now, it was as if he’d opened my mind to concentrate on his truth—and he’d opened my heart to feel his presence.

While everything around me swirled in confusion, the peace that passes understanding filled my heart. I was able to stand in front of my students with a smile, knowing God was with me—knowing I didn’t have to know how things would turn out. All I needed to know was that God was in control.

For the first time in my life, I was surrendering everything to God: my fears, my feelings, and my attempts to control my life. My family’s situation had showed me how very powerless I was—and how my survival, Mom’s survival, and Caleb’s survival, depended on a higher power. If any good was to come of this, I knew it would have to be God’s doing.

In part 5, read what happened to my mom, Caleb, and me, as well as what God taught me about persevering through hardship.

My Role Model Committed Suicide

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(This photo belongs to Jay Tilston and can be found here.)

She wasn’t exactly my role model, but Mindy Mccready’s suicide yesterday got me thinking about an actual role model of mine who did recently kill himself. I’ve thought about writing about him many times since I heard the news in December, but until now, the pain was too fresh to face.

Mindy’s death came quickly and tragically for me, too; but it’s easier to write about her because I only remember her as a marginal figure in my youth. After her hit “Guys Do It All the Time,” which played on the radio during our school bus route in 1996, she kinda dropped off the radar for me. Aside from admiring her twangy statement against male chauvinism, I never counted her among my personal heroes.

Not like Leo Schreven.

A motivational speaker and evangelist, Leo was much lesser known than Mindy. At least in the secular world. But in both the secular and religious worlds, I’d have to say his impact was far greater than hers. That’s because Leo’s work was not just to entertain, but to inspire, even to save souls by leading them to Christ.

What I Learned from Leo Schreven

In 2009, a complex of factors brought me to my knees in search of divine intervention. Our family was in a state of crisis, I was beginning my second year of teaching, and I knew I couldn’t get through the stress of this time alone. As a result, I was open to God in a way I had never been open before. And He delivered.

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(This photo can be found here.)

Among the many ways God provided for my spiritual growth that year, He placed recordings of one of Leo’s Bible seminars within earshot. It was a twenty-plus-part seminar on Bible prophecy that also touched on how Christians should live in a secular world. The material moved me deeply, to the point that I changed a number of personal habits I’d had for years. Christianity was not about the weekly church visit, I learned that year, it is about the daily walk—and Leo had a huge hand in teaching me that.

In 2010, I was floored to learn that Leo would be coming to my church to present one of his newer seminars, this one called “All Power.” Unlike his previously Bible-based presentations, these were more secular, dealing with self-improvement in five areas of life (religion and spirituality being relegated to one-fifth of the seminar). Even though these presentations weren’t as “godly” as what I formerly remembered, I found this material helpful, too, so much so that I used it to build a series of lessons for my public school seniors the next fall.

Too Good to Be True?

As you can imagine, when I found out that Leo had committed suicide in December of 2012, I felt devastated. I also couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed. What had happened to his promise of finding “all power” in all the major areas of life? I didn’t want to be bitter, but I did feel bitter, especially because I felt Leo had let down not only me, but also my students.

More than feeling sorry for myself, though, I felt sorry for Leo’s wife and daughter. This was sure to sink the ministry, I thought, and it did. All Power Ministries folded just this month, with Leo’s poor widow announcing that it was just too much to maintain. The irony of the situation (motivational speaker commits suicide) was too obvious, or shameful, to receive comment.

As I thought back to Leo’s weekend-long seminar at my church, I remembered watching his energetic gait and mile-a-minute speech and thinking that his success seemed too good to be true…I remember hearing him rave about his vegan diet and how he only needed four hours of sleep per night…how he traveled for over two-thirds of the year to bring these life-giving principles to others…and the pace of his life seemed insupportable.

After his early days of evangelism in the nineties (which produced the audio recordings that partially led me back to God), He told us he, with his wife, had decided to place other priorities above family—just for a few years, so he could build up his ministry and his wealth (which he used for much good, I must say). And that was one of his recommendations in the All Power seminar: that you sacrifice some things now in order to set yourself up for success later. From what I understood, his plan was to build up his career and ministry first, then come back to his family life later.

But he never got the chance.

Leo died with millions of dollars, a thriving ministry, and what must have been thousands of followers (including yours truly). But, as it came out later, his wife had left him prior to the suicide, taking their daughter with them. His personal life was a shambles.

They had tried to work it out, his wife explained, but unbeknownst to the public, he had been suffering with a debilitating mental illness for many years, and finally, it got to be too much to bear. They urged Leo to get help, she said, but he would not.

Making Sense of Tragedy

What do you say when things like this happen? My husband and I mulled it over in shock for days. Leo seemed so happy, so healthy, when we’d last seen him. He seemed so in control and confident. He almost seemed larger than life.

But maybe that was the problem. I hate to speculate, but I can only imagine that the pressure of having to maintain an “all powerful” life must have been crushing. He must have felt the pressure that many Christians feel—although to a much greater extent—when others look to you to fill shoes you were never meant to fill—when you become a “God” figure for others.

I won’t fully understand what happened until I get to ask God in heaven, but in trying to understand my role model’s suicide, I have come to resolution in several ways.

  • Leo’s death reminds me that we should never put anyone in the place of God. We are all only humans—even the “best” of us—and we must remember that no accomplishments come from our own strength.
  • Though immediately I felt bitter that Leo had let me down, I eventually came to feel thankful for how the Lord had used him to bring me back to my true role model, Jesus Christ. Though it’s sad Leo won’t be able to convert any more hearts, I am thankful for the thousands of hearts that he did convert.
  • In the end, I just have to trust God’s wisdom and leading. He knows things we don’t, and although I don’t believe God caused this suicide, or Mindy Mccready’s, or anyone one else’s, I have to trust that He allowed it to happen. Though it won’t make it any easier for the survivors, I know that God works miracles through tragedies. Perhaps Leo’s death will be a call to other public figures, role models, and ministers to remember that only by the grace of God can they be successful, or remain that way.
  • Both Leo’s and Mindy’s deaths should spur the humility in us all. No matter how secure we seem, or even feel, we cannot be too confident in our own abilities. It is because of God that we “live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) and for no other reason. Once we forget that, becoming too prideful to admit we have problems or to seek the help we need, we are on Satan’s playground—and he will stop at nothing to destroy us (John 10:10).
  • Life is short and fleeting. What is your life? It is but a mist that appears for awhile and then disappears (James 4:14). Leo’s life and death reminds me that no matter how much good I intend to do (even in the name of the Lord), I can’t get so busy that I neglect my health or my family. I’ll take success more slowly if it means I get to keep my life, my health, and my family.
  • God has already used Leo’s death to teach me.

Though there is no easy way to end this post, I would like to close by offering my sincerest condolences to Leo’s family, to Mindy’s family, and to all families of suicide victims. I pray that the “God of all comfort” with become very real to you in these inscrutable times, smoothing over the unanswered questions until that day when He will make all things plain, letting us judge for ourselves the tragedies of this life (1 Cor. 6:3; Rev: 20:12).