“And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.” Isaiah 58:11-12
Friendship is such an incredible thing, especially between two that are kindred spirits. I remember the very first time I met her, and it was as if our friendship began in that moment. Years have passed since that day, countless memories shared, tears cried, laughs exchanged, and one thing stands out to me above it all. I see Jesus in her. I see His heart through her life. The good work that God began in her heart so many years ago, He is continuing to see it to completion. Her Story is one of brokenness that was transformed by God’s healing hand. Her Story is one of beauty from ashes. And she tells it best. So, here is her story…
I will be forever grateful to my parents for bringing me to church as a child. Though things were very unstable for me growing up in a divorced family, they introduced me to a God who never changes at a young age. He has faithfully walked with me through so many ups and downs, carrying me at times, and He walks with me still.
I was six years old at a vacation Bible school when I first embraced Jesus as my personal savior and friend. There was a lot I didn’t understand about being a Christian, but I did understand that there was a God who made me, loved me, and His son died so that I could live forever with Him. Frankly, that sounded infinitely better than my life at the time. My parents divorced when I was four, and shortly afterwards my mom moved my sisters and I to Boulder, CO, states away from my dad. Over the next three years, everything went from bad to worse. We lived in three different homes over the course of my three years in Colorado. I can remember one time hiding under my bedroom desk in my second home, talking to my dad on the phone. I had to hide and whisper so that my mom wouldn’t find out that he had found our phone number. She didn’t want us to have any relationship with him, especially since she had married my step-dad. Richard was a Native American from the Navajo tribe, and our lives turned upside down when he moved in. It wasn’t long before we stopped going to vacation Bible schools and I stopped learning new things about this God who loved me. Instead, my mom and step dad started smoking a lot of marijuana, worshiping the earth, and eventually diving into “white” and finally “black” witchcraft.
Living with my mom and Richard was like something out of a movie. They performed rituals and cast spells in our front room, tried to interpret our dreams and teach us how to be psychic, attempted suicide on occasion, and of course, smoked a lot of marijuana. The cops were regulars at our house, and we were often called into the school office to be told to go home with neighbors of ours because there had been an incident at our house, again. When it was at its worst, my mom and step-dad would just leave, maybe for a night, maybe a few. The longest I remember them being gone was for close to two weeks. They left and stayed in a motel about forty minutes away, and my sisters and I were left to fend for ourselves. Despite the chaos, confusion, neglect, and definite spiritual warfare surrounding my little 8 year-old self, I saw myself as very different than my mom and step-dad. They may have been consumed by witchcraft and drugs, but I hadn’t forgotten that my Creator loved me and had good things in store for me. As a 6, 7 and 8 year old, God was my rescuer from my circumstances, my savior from the sins of others, and my peace in the chaos.
One day in the middle of third grade, a lot of things happened that resulted in my sisters and I suddenly moving to live with my dad in Michigan. He had just married my step-mom, and they had a newborn son, my half-brother. They didn’t smoke marijuana or get in fights and leave without telling us when they’d be back, or mix potions in the living room. They went to church, ate dinner around a table, made sure we brushed our teeth and made our beds, brought us to softball practice, and were members at the YMCA. They were my answer to prayer, even before I was expecting it! I knew that some day my God would rescue me from the chaos, but I wasn’t expecting it so soon. Even though things were really broken between my mom and I, God had provided me with a new mom. She and my dad promised my sisters and I that they would never get a divorce, and we could even call her mom, so we did. We had become a new, happy, even “normal” family.
From this point forward, I grew up as a “normal” kid. God seemed to bless me in everything I touched, pouring favor on my friendships, academics, athletics, and arts. I was so thankful for all that He had given me, especially because I remembered what it was like to not have those things – to not know when or if you’ll see your dad again, or what you’re going to eat for breakfast or bring in your lunch to school, to not participate in programs or teams because there really wasn’t a responsible adult to help make it happen. I was so incredibly grateful for God’s love for me, for the sacrifice that Jesus made for me, and for Him rescuing me from my circumstances, that I did everything I could to try and show Him how thankful I was. I went to everything my youth group offered and my friends’ youth groups. I shared my testimony at first priority conferences and Young Life banquets, after all, my story made God look good: “Powerful, loving God rescues poor, neglected little girl and turns her into a smart, successful, social butterfly!” To God be the glory! And I almost made it through high school when my life flipped upside down again.
As part of my “I love God and want every decision to show that” life, I signed up to spend the summer between my junior and senior year of high school in Tijuana. I said goodbye to my happy family in our driveway as my dad drove me to the airport, sending me off to be a volunteer staff member at a house-building ministry that doubled as a missions education and mobilization center. I was a straight-A student, record-setting athlete, award-winning artist, and on my way to grace Mexico Caravan Ministries with my philanthropic heart. I knew that nobody deserved eternal life and that it was a free gift that we could never earn if we tried, but deep down in my heart I also thought (but would never ever admit to someone else) that if anyone deserved it, I was probably in the running. After all, my life had been pretty rough, but instead of getting mad at God for it, I ran to Him. I was also really good at a lot of things, and instead of being proud of myself for it, I gave God glory for it and used every opportunity to tell people about Him. So, the way I saw things, I was a pretty good catch! Not that I was proud of it or anything (because pride is a sin, of course….she said facetiously).
A week after arriving in Tijuana, I called home on Father’s Day to tell my dad I loved him. In return, he told me that my step-mom had an affair and was divorcing him, and I needed to decide who I wanted to live with when I got back. After a few minutes of unbelief and his reassurance that my greatest fear had actually come true, I said I wanted to live with him and got off the phone, weeping. One of the girls on summer staff with me, whose parents were also divorced, committed to pray and fast with me for my parents. That lasted a few days, but every phone call home only confirmed that they really were getting a divorce. My step-mom had already filed, and by the time I would be home, she and my brother would be gone. I was so angry, so broken-hearted. I felt abandoned by my new mom just like I had felt by my first mom, and more significantly, I felt betrayed by God. I had already gone through my hard stuff, right? How could He do this to me again? Why was it that it seemed that I tried so very hard to follow Him while everyone else in my life did whatever they wanted, and then I had to suffer for it? (This was also the summer that a lot of my friends started drinking, having sex, experimenting with drugs, and they concluded that we didn’t have very much in common anymore). I got so mad at God one night that I actually wrote in my journal, “I’ve always done what you’ve asked, and look where it got me. Now it’s my turn. I’m going to do what I want.” Less than a week later I was in a dating relationship with one of the older guys on staff. I was 17 and he was 21. My rebellion had begun.
That summer I was the double-minded man of James 1:2-8, tossed by the waves of the seas. During the days when I was leading the groups in building the houses, I spoke of my great confidence in the Lord and the importance of the Great Commission. Then in the evenings, I would spend time with my boyfriend, looking to him for the comfort that only God could give me. To no one’s surprise, our relationship did not remain morally pure, and the more I was faced with crossing boundaries I had committed to God in my heart, the more I ran from God out of fear and pain and anger, and the more I ran to the arms of the man I had replaced Him with. I went home at the end of the summer to a nearly empty house. My sisters had gone away to college, and my step-mom moved out with my brother. My dad was left, and he was mad. He was mad and felt betrayed by his wife, and he was mad and disappointed in me, believing that my only motivation to go to Mexico for the summer was to get a boyfriend. We were at odds as I entered my senior year.
It took me until Thanksgiving that year to finally end it with Ben. I had spent that fall depressed, suicidal, angry, and isolating myself from all my friends; if it weren’t for playing basketball, I don’t think there would’ve been a single endorphin in my body. Still, God is faithful even when we are not. I knew I wasn’t actually going to marry Ben, despite the promise ring I was wearing and the names we had picked out for our first two kids, so I ended our relationship. And by God’s grace, He compelled my dad to take me away that Christmas break so I couldn’t wallow in my self-pity. Of all places, we went to Colorado, where my biological mom lived who I hadn’t spoken to or seen in almost ten years. I not only reconnected with her briefly, but I found myself in a bookstore on January 1, 2002. I saw a One Year Bible on the shelf, bought it, and started walking back to the God I once trusted to rescue me from this life.
Within two weeks of reading how God used even the incredibly dysfunctional families in the book of Genesis, my depression and self-pity lifted, and I found myself face to face with the ugliness of my past six months of rebellion. I began daily thanking God again for His gift of salvation and then repeatedly apologizing for my gross actions, praying again and again, “I’m so sorry, God! I can’t believe I did that!” Finally the Holy Spirit broke through and silenced my attempt to pay penance for my sin. He told me, as if for the first time, that Jesus did not just die to rescue me from the sins of others, but to rescue me from my own. This is so arrogant for me to say, but I honestly hadn’t embraced Jesus Christ’s sacrifice as payment for my own sin until this point! That day changed everything. It changed how I saw myself, how I saw others, and how I saw my desire to help fulfill the Great Commission. So I graduated and headed to Moody Bible Institute with a full understanding of my own sin and the beauty of the cross that took it away.
Other than some continued family drama, my four years at Moody were almost blissful. I learned so much, grew so much, and built friendships with other Christians committed to ministry, it was like nothing I had ever experienced. I met and married Topher before even graduating, and he was already a full-time youth pastor in the suburbs of Chicago. I tried to jump right in to marriage and ministry, but I didn’t realize how much baggage I was still carrying around with me. I had wanted and tried to forgive my mom and step-mom for walking out on my dad and eventually me, but it was like a command that I didn’t know how to obey. So my pain became bitterness, and my bitterness began to defile my marriage. I had a deep sense of abandonment and neglect, an underlying current in my heart that said that I would never be good enough, and I looked to Topher to prove that wrong (though neither of us realized it). Naturally, that led to a lot of fights our first year, and it wasn’t until we had moved to South Florida to work at Calvary Chapel and were placed under the guidance of an older godly couple, that we really started to address some of what was eating away at our marriage.
Doug and Suzanne stepped into our life when we were in the process of adopting our daughter, Crystal, a teenage girl we had met and grown to love in our youth ministry. As we prayed about this, I had felt strongly that it didn’t really matter if God told me we were to be her parents, because Topher was the head of our household. So I prayed for months for God to make it clear to Topher; if I am honest though, I had so much confidence in my ability to discern God’s direction for us that I just assumed that if He told Topher, He would tell me too. Well, He didn’t. Topher decided to move forward with adopting Crystal, and I was walking forward solely out of submission. I would wake up in the morning and literally cry to God about how I didn’t want to be her mom, I didn’t know how to be a mom, and how I wanted a mom! He told me to be strong and courageous, like Joshua, and I said I didn’t want to. He told me love her and show her what a Godly wife and mother looked like, and I wanted to run for the hills. Until one day, I was at the end of myself and I started asking God for a motherly love for Crystal. I prayed that every single day, and God delivered. I was starting to learn that God calls us to do some very difficult things, not because we have the strength within ourselves to do them, but because He does and He gives it to us.
After Crystal went away to college, Topher and I were still meeting with Doug and Suzanne, making some progress with our marriage. They recommended that we go through a program called Restoring Relationships to deal with our wounds from our childhood. We responded with “we don’t have enough time,” only to take on more commitments and for Topher to enroll in full-time online graduate school while still working full-time in youth ministry. We were headed toward burnout fast. Six months later, I felt so convicted about neglecting that direction from Pastor Doug that I enrolled in Restoring Relationships without Topher. God used Restoring Relationships to uncover so much in my life, I couldn’t possibly write it all here. In short, He was healing, and I was changing.
For the first time in my life, I was willing to try to have biological children, and I could identify and repent of the fears that held me back before. When I prayed for my marriage, I prayed that God would do whatever it would take to heal it, and I meant it. I repented of my inability to ask for help for fear of becoming an inconvenience and eventually being abandoned by someone I loved. Above all, I learned what it meant to forgive, and I committed to a life of letting God be the judge and setting me free from bitterness and hatred by trusting Him to deal with others when they sin against me. During this program I became pregnant with my now 11 month-old son, Gideon and was given a promise from Isaiah 58:11-12 for him and our entire family. Topher also started the program when I was a little while into it, and after a few weeks, he came to me and asked forgiveness from me for some sins he had committed against me. For the first time, I was able to choose forgiveness at the beginning instead of after years of bitterness later. I was learning to not only walk in faith but in freedom from all the snares the Enemy had tried to hold me in, for Christ indeed had set me free (Galatians 5:1)! I had always taught others that God healed, but I hadn’t yet believed it for myself until then, and it was then that God began to heal me in the deepest places.
After I had completed the Restoring Relationships program, I sought out more counseling for some of the issues that I felt I hadn’t gotten to the bottom of yet. During one of my sessions, my therapist recommended that I read the book Grace Walk by Steve McVey. The book’s main premise is that we become Christians by grace, and it is only by grace that we can live as Christians. That was revolutionary for me because I had become quite a Pharisee. If my relationship with God was repaired by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, then why was I still trying to earn His favor? It was by grace I was saved, and it is by grace I live. I read that book about a year ago, and I have spent the last year unwinding from a life of very religious living, learning how to rest in the grace I’ve been given, and love out of the love that has been given to me. I am learning how to walk by faith every day and finding my needs met in Christ so that I can give freely to my needy neighbor, instead of giving to my neighbor in order to try and appease my own guilt for all that God has given me. I feel like I am on the wildest ride of the universe! I am following Christ in faith, on my own little grace walk, in my marriage, my parenting, my friendships, and in whatever else my Heavenly Father calls me to!
To my dear friend, Anya, you are beautiful, and you shine the light of Jesus into this dark world in ways I’ve rarely seen. Your smile gives hope to those who are blessed to see it. Your laugh is contagious and brings joy to those who hear it. You are a treasure, my friend, and I’m beyond blessed to know you. I’m honored to call you friend, sister. Thank you for not giving up in your pursuit of Christ, because He has been so glorified through your story. I love you.