Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Church Hurt

As far back as I can remember, I have been in church.  My parents were never Sunday morning pew-fillers.  They were the people who jumped in, helped however they could, used their gifts to serve others, were greatly involved in fellowship, and who left our home open to anyone, anytime.  Church was not a place to hang out, that was just a bonus.  We were the family that was there every time the doors were open.  Mama taught Sunday School, helped with VBS, visited shut-ins, cooked for every event and need.  My Daddy was in the choir, was Jesus in the outdoor Easter drama, was a deacon, was on committee upon committee, made hospital visits and sang at homecoming, weddings, and funerals.  My siblings and I were the kids who knew every nook and cranny of the church, could find the best hiding spots, often were allowed to ring the bell in the steeple, were in: Sunday School, Children's Church, Children's Choir, the children's musicals, clown ministry, GAs, Acteens, RAs.  We were the ones who would be climbing in the trees out front in between choir practice and service.  We were the ones sitting in the back row during a funeral.  We were the ones trying to trash the getaway car at weddings.  We were the kiddos reciting Bible verses and singing hymns to those in the hospital or unable to leave their home.  Some of the sweetest memories of my childhood circle around church.  Some of my dearest friendships started in the Missions Friends class when I was 5 years old; and I am so blessed to still be in touch with several of those amazing friends (thank you, Facebook).  I can think of saint after saint who prayed for our family.  I can remember our church being the ones to rally around my family when my youngest brother was sick.  Our church was home.  This was the church where I met Jesus, where I was baptized, and where I felt the Lord call me to be a missionary to children.

We were apart of that wonderful church until I was 15, almost 16 years old.  There were some issues that arose, and our family left the church.  Being a crazy teenager, I didn't respond well to the change.  I struggled deeply with God's plan, His will, His sovereignty.  Truth be told, I shut my heart off to the church and began a series of actions that were flat-out rebellious.  I made poor choice after poor choice.  I blamed my hurt.  I blamed people.  The cynicism that had always been a small part of my personality took over my disposition.  NONE of this was anyone's fault but my own.  Being released from a church family, I took it upon myself to taste life without that accountability and positive peer pressure.  I knew what sin was...I was a daily sinner.  However, I decided to up the anty and stop caring about faith, grace, hope and mercy.  The worst part of it all was that I was such a good actress. I could turn on the charm and perk-factor for anyone.  Very few people knew the decisions I was making.  Most people still saw that bubbly young lady.

My parents began to attend another church.  I would go between that church and one of the many churches my boyfriend's family visited.  I would stand and sing.  I would sit and smile.  But my heart was hardened.  I was not engaged in personal quiet time.  I did not read my Bible.  I did not pray, except for the mealtime blessing.  I avoided fellowship with believers...I really avoided fellowship with anyone other than my boyfriend or my siblings.  I trusted no one.  I didn't want to hurt again.

Thankfully, there were people who God graciously brought into my path who cared about me.  I remember one evening when the pastor and youth pastor from the church my parents were visiting came to our house...to visit with me!  They came to reach out to me.  They asked me questions, they answered my questions, and they listened to me.  For a teenager, that meant the world.  Eventually, I became more involved.  During my time in that youth group, I felt called to share my testimony with other teens.  My heart's desire was to keep other young ladies from making the mistakes I had.  I wanted to go back to being a positive role model for my younger sister and brothers.  I wanted to try and regain my place in the church.  Here is what is so beautiful--God never moved.  While I avoided His wonderful gifts, He never removed them from me.  His forgiveness, grace and mercy were there for the asking.  All I had to do was just that--ASK!  Then, I had to take some action steps.  I asked God to light me back up.  I asked Him to wash me clean from the hurt I had caused myself and others.  I confessed my mistakes to others--my parents, my siblings, my youth pastor and his wife, the youth group...I didn't give them graphic details, but I told them enough to let them know I knew I was not perfect, that I had messed up, and that I had been a false leader in their lives.  I lost some friends from telling the truth, and that's ok.  I had to work very hard to regain the trust of my parents and siblings.  I started reading my Bible again.  I started praying daily.  I began to worship with my heart open.  I started serving.  When I went down the road to college, I would come back home every weekend.  On Sunday afternoons, I would lead the children's choir and teach Team Kid.  I felt the call to work with children so strongly then.  I was 18 years old.  

Now, I find myself in another time of transition away from a church that was home.  For almost 5 years for my kiddos and me (and for 13 years for Brian), we attended, worked, served, and loved at a church that was like our family.  God spoke very clearly to Brian, me and our children that it was our time to leave this church.  Sometimes, it is really hard to be obedient.  Sometimes, it seems easier to keep up appearances and routines.  Justifying staying somewhere out of want is not hard to do.  I really believe God had to use "louder" methods to get our family's attention to make us realize and fully understand He had another plan for us.  Leaving that church has been a challenge, but it also has been an incredible blessing.  With my past, I wanted to act vigilantly and proactively for our children.  I knew we would need time away from any church to heal and process.  I also knew how easy it is to walk away from church altogether.  Brian, our kiddos and myself have had many intentional and age-appropriate conversations about why we left.  We all feel God moving us to something new.  In our time away from a church building, we have been having church at home.  On Sunday mornings, we would watch a worship service online then follow-up with a discussion.  Every night, we come together for a time of family devotion.  Each night, a different family member is responsible for leading the Bible study and prayer time.  Last week, we had a conversation where we all talked about feeling that we were individually being prompted to try an actual church.  We visited one, and we were very encouraged.  It matters so much to me to not only protect my heart from hardening, but to work as hard as I can to show our children the way to fight against the temptation to give in to cynicism, doubt and distrust.  I am so happy with how God is working in our family.  He is preparing each one of us for something as individuals and as a whole family.

In this time of rest and healing, we are being intentional about holding each other accountable about time in the Bible--both alone and together.  This week, we spent some time in Psalm 18.  One of the things I love about God is that He is never surprised.  He is the One holding the master plan.  He has given us affirmation and confirmation as we have needed it.  He has joined our family closer together.  He has revealed His beauty to us and is continuing to encourage us.  Psalm 18 was written by David.  It was most likely written towards the end of His life.  Very similar words can be found in 2 Samuel 22.  Anytime I teach, I like to say that if God put something in the Bible more than once, it's His way of yelling--PAY ATTENTION!!!  READ THIS!!!  APPLY IT!!!  That's my interpretation, at least.  Both passages sing praise to God for deliverance and strength.  I loved reading this passage because it reminded me of God's faithfulness.  He was faithful in my childhood filled with lovely memories.  He was faithful in my teen years when I was not.  He was faithful in bringing this family together.  He is being faithful in guiding us on our current journey.  In Psalm 18, there are so many great "one-liners" to point readers to His faithfulness and strength.  If you need some refreshment and to be fired up at the same time, take some time to read this Psalm!  How can you go wrong with a passage that starts with: "I love you, Lord, my strength.  The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer..."?

P.S.  Don't you just love my "models".  Thank you to Titus, Cecely and Hannah P. for working so hard, for putting Jesus first, and for making my job as a Mama look pretty easy.  I love you!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

These Three Remain

"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love..." I Corinthians 13:13a.

I Corinthians 13 is a Scripture passage that many of us may know from attending weddings.  This chapter is often referred to as the "love chapter" in the Bible.  It truly is a beautiful piece to read, full of truth, encouragement, conviction, and challenge.  I have read this part of the Bible over and over and over.  I have read it through the romantic perspective...how do I shape up as a wife when it comes to all of these attributes?  I have read it through the eyes of family...how am I using the passage to determine how I am being love to my children, parents and siblings?  This evening, I am processing this passage by thinking of my past and future.

I have been blessed to have had many great role models in my life.  My Grandmama taught me how to clean, cook and garden.  My Mama taught me how to be organized, how to persevere, how to exhibit grace.  My Daddy showed me the power of being hospitable and compassionate.  My Dad has shown me how to be joyful in all circumstances.  I have been under the leadership of incredible pastors and teachers who have poured God's Word into my heart and mind.  I was brought up with three incredible siblings, each blessed with skill sets that motivate and astound me.

There are a few "extra" people who have made deep impacts on my life.  They were not my physical flesh and blood, but they were those who were in my life from day one.  They are still very much a part of my life.  While one has passed away, the other three are still here; and I know no matter what, I could call them with any burden and they would pray for me and with me.  They are my spiritual role models.  When I read the above passage today, "these three remain: faith, hope and love", the names of these powerhouse individuals were brought quickly to my mind.

Aunt Martha, Mama, Daddy, Papa, Me
My "Aunt" Martha is a faith hero.  She was my godmother growing up.  She was around from the day I was born.  She still checks in on me in the midst of the adventures of her life.  She is the largest person of faith whom I know.  She has the sweetest disposition, a sharp wit, and a fantastic way with words.  I have bountiful memories of time with my sweet Aunt Martha.  I remember when I was in seventh grade and had written a speech for English class that my teacher had submitted into a contest.  There was an opportunity to attend an event to give the speech and the chance to win an award.  My Mama went to school at night, my Daddy worked nights, and my Grandmama was taking care of my siblings (who would be less than thrilled to attend a night of middle school speech-giving).  My Aunt Martha was the one who took me.  She picked me up, took me to dinner, and she and I headed to the event.  I remember when I stood up to share my speech feeling confident because Aunt Martha was there.  I know she was praying for me as I spoke.  That night I won second place.  I remember feeling the combination of pride and disappointment.  More than that, I remember Aunt Martha hugging me and telling me that God was going to use me and my words.  As I have grown up and gone through many trials, Aunt Martha is the one I know I can email with all of the details.  I know she will pray over me and the situation.  I know she will point out God's truth through it all.  I know she will remind me that God is sovreign.  She has faced her own trials through life, and through them all, she gives God the glory.  Her faith never seems to waiver.

Tyler, Uncle Chip, Me, Aunt Denise, Timothy
There is a couple in my life who radiate with hope.  My "Uncle" Chip and "Aunt" Denise always seem to remember that no matter the circumstance, God is going to show up and show out.  These two rock stars were also around at the start of my life.  I can remember countless parties, dinners and visits with them.  I remember time spent in their home in Charlotte (which was basically where we went on our family vacations.  They were always so hospitable).  I can remember my Uncle Chip teaching me to drive.  I can remember my Aunt Denise making sure I had the best baby showers.  I remember when I faced medical trials, Uncle Chip would joke with me, and Aunt Denise would feel certain God would bring answers.  When I went through my divorce, they both reached out to me and my ex-husband.  They prayed fervently for reconciliation.  They had hope that our family could be saved.  When they learned the circumstances that would prevent reconciliation, they began to hope and pray for whatever and whomever God had next for me.  I remember sitting in the parking lot of a Firehouse Subs a few years ago and having my Uncle Chip pray over the phone for me, knowing my Aunt Denise was sitting beside him praying quietly.  Anytime they are in town, we do our best to get together.  When I am with them, my hope is recharged.  When I get a text or email checking on my family and me, I am encouraged.  They never act defeated.  They never allowed for me to have an attitude of giving up.  They shared their hope with me; and they continue to lift me up!

My siblings and Aunt Rose
When I think of love, I know I was blessed to have had many years with the personification of love in my dear "Aunt Rose".  Aunt Rose passed away a few years ago.  I miss her greatly.  I still have her phone number embedded in my brain, and there are times when I just want to call her and hear her charming southern drawl.  Aunt Rose oozed love.  She hugged me as soon as I walked through the door.  If I sat beside her, she would hold my hand or pat my arm as we talked.  When we were younger, my brothers, sister and myself looked forward for the days when we knew we were making the drive to Weaverville.  We always had  fun running around the yard, walking to the creek, picking tomatoes in the garden, or climbing the perfect tree in the front yard.  The highlight of any visit was when Aunt Rose would call us into the kitchen to give us whatever delectable delight she had baked.  Everything in her kitchen was made from scratch.  Her red velvet cake would melt the instant it touched the tongue.  Her Christmas fudge was so good that one piece was never enough.  While we would be in the kitchen, Aunt Rose would ask us to share what Bible verse we were learning, to sing a hymn, or to share a Bible story.  She always had a smile on her face...always.  She knew the favorite dessert of everyone in our family, and she would make that dessert for our birthdays.  When my Daddy passed away, I lived in Georgia, and I struggled deeply with anger.  I would call Aunt Rose and she would speak Scripture to me.  Her tone was like music.  No matter what she said, her words were sweet like honey.  I remember her telling me that holding onto anger would damage my heart and eventually my testimony.  Those words stung, because they were true; but they also began a wonderful healing process.  Aunt Rose went through an intense amount of physical pain, especially towards the end of her life.  Even then she would say that she was hurting, but she would also have a way loving me and making me feel better.  When I lived far away, I always wanted to be able to hop into the car and go see her.  Her words were so wise and so loving.  Whenever I think of a spiritual role model, she fits the bill.  She exemplified the love of Christ in the way she loved others.

Anytime I reflect on my past, I make sure to spend some time thinking ahead to my future.  It is my goal to be a person who others rely on spiritually.  I want to purpose my life to be as much like Jesus as I can.  Anyone who knows me knows how far off that mark I am.  I want to train up my children to be those who lead.  I want to be a wife who brings only good to my husband.  I want them to feel that fire inside that the Holy Spirit gives to help lead others to His saving grace.  I want to be the person who gets a prayer request email or phone call and immediately drops to my knees to lift up that need.  I want to be the person who faces Jesus at the end of it all where He says "well done".  It's not enough to want to be like Jesus or to be a spiritual role model.  Like any other goal setting, there needs to be an action plan.  With daily time in God's Word and sharing with Him through prayer, I am taking steps to improve my walk.  I have asked God to stop me the minute when someone asks me to pray--and that whatever else is going on in that moment goes to the back burner so my mind and heart switch to prayer mode.  I am working on developing a more constant state of prayer by talking with the Lord throughout the day.  I am trying to commit more of His Word to my memory.  I am keeping a prayer journal.  I am building a prayer wall.

How about you?  What impact do you want to have on others?  What kind of role model do you want to be?  We all have people looking to us everyday.  Like it or not, we are modeling something for everyone.  What do you want that to be?  What action steps can you make and take to reach your spiritual goals?  Who are some people in your life who inspire you and encourage you to get your spiritual walk in shape?  Do they know what they mean to you?  If not, let them know!  If they do, tell them again.  I am a very blessed girl.  God has been so good to me.  He has made sure that I have been surrounded by strong mentors of faith through every season of my life.  I treasure each relationship and every memory.  What memory will I leave in the minds of the people I love?  What memory will you leave?  Where do you measure up when reading I Corinthians 13?  That passage is great guideline for a spiritual check-up...join me in working on becoming a person who exemplifies faith, hope and love!

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Mrs. Amber's Bracelets

The current bracelet collection.
When I began working with kiddos many moons ago, I noticed that I was drawn to the more...let's see, what word is politically correct...rambunctious children.  For whatever reason, my heart longed to reach out to these kiddos who were struggling to sit still and focus and help them to succeed in the classroom.  Maybe it was because one of my brothers was hyperactive while we were growing up and the other brother had medical problems that made focusing a challenge for him.  Maybe it was because my sister struggled in school and built up a tough spirit and attitude to combat the bullies that made fun of her.  Maybe it was because I was a kindred spirit who had my fair share of moments of daydreaming and being off-task.  Maybe it was because I am a fan of people who are not boring.  Maybe it was a combination of all of the above.  No matter the logic, I loved working with these kiddos.

When I was a second grade assistant, my reading group was made up such kiddos.  Because of their challenging behavior, it was hard for them to complete assignments and tests.  It was hard to measure where they were and what growth they had made.  It was hard to get through a short story without one of them bolting off across the room.  The Christmas of that second grade assistant year, I received a gift from one of "my" boys.  He gave me five bangle bracelets that he had picked out just for me.  They were made of bright, wild multi-colored beads.  He told me he got them for me because when he saw them, he thought of me since I was a little bit crazy!  I loved that.  I instantly put on that precious gift.  Something amazing happened.  In the moments that followed, I opened up our read-along book, and he sat down right beside me.  He put his hand on my arm and ran those bracelets up and down.  He didn't move anything else on his body.  His hands were busy, his eyes were on the text, and his mind was focused on the words in front of us.  The next day, I split the bracelets up and put a couple on each arm.  Like magic, the same little fellow and the child on the other side of me were magically attracted to the bracelets.  Now, I am not saying that there never were behavior issues with that group, but seeing how those children could shift the focus of their mind if their hands were busy registered in my head.

After working in second grade, I moved to the intensive intervention classroom.  Again, I loved it.  I loved being with children who were so very smart, but they had physical or behavioral limitations that made it so hard for them to convey the thoughts in their minds.  I spent most of my time working one-on-one with a little man whom I adored.  He was extremely intelligent, but he was non-verbal.  He would become violently frustrated when he could not communicate with others.  He often preferred to be away from the other children.  My theory is because he would get in trouble when he would act out, and he would act out when he was frustrated.  He was frustrated because he had so much to say and couldn't.  I remember at the beginning of the year when we would circle up for group time in the morning.  The children would sit in chairs.  My task was to sit behind this amazing young man.  If he began to lose control, I would slip my arms around his and lightly hold him in his chair (don't worry; I had received extensive training on the proper way to do this, and his parents were aware and in support of this technique).  His first reaction when my arms would go around his was to pull away.  His second instinct was to attack me by scratching or pinching.  Eventually, he would accept that I wasn't going anywhere, at least not until group time was over.  When he would calm down, his hands would find their way to my bracelets.  And, there he would sit with his fingers flicking, pulling or rolling my jewelry.  We had many interesting encounters over that school year.  There was battles and victories.  One of my sweetest memories was a day in the spring when many of the kiddos had become strong in the ways of the routine.  I wasn't needed as much to sit behind my little friend during group time, because he was doing so well on his own.  However, there was one day where he came over to the table where I was working on something, grabbed my hand, pulled a chair behind his, sat down in his chair and pulled my arms around his.  His sweet hands finding their way to my bracelets.  There he sat.  Playing with bracelets and holding tight to my arm.

Over the years, I have acquired quite the bracelet collection.  If I see any on a good deal, I buy them.  (I just went to Kohl's and they had 4 different sets of crazy colors for $2.00/each).  Others have been given to me.  There were two amazing kiddos at my last job.  They came from a very difficult home life.  One never wanted to join the group, the other wanted to run constant laps around the group.  One Sunday morning during our small group time, one of these incredible young ones noticed the colorful collection on my arm.  He asked if he could touch them.  I told him he could if he would sit beside me for the Bible story.  Then, he called to his sister who also wanted to be up close to the bling.  I began the Bible story with each one of them on either side.  Both happily content to be fidgeting with my bracelets while their eyes locked in on mine as I shared the story.  The following week, they brought me a set of silver bangles from their mom's jewelry box (don't worry--she knew and gave them permission).  During large group time, I would always sit on the floor with the 50-60 children who would come to children's worship.  There were several who wanted to sit near me...not because I am that great, but they wanted to play with the bangles.  On my last Sunday teaching, I had one child on my right side, two on my left, one in my lap, and one behind me...the one behind me was playing with my hair while the other three were rolling bracelets up and down my arm.  And, while they may not have been able to repeat the Bible story word for word, they had the gist of the message!

There is something so inspirational about working with children.  They are honest, hilarious, and hopeful.  They love with all they have.  They hurt loudly.  They learn in a hundred different ways.  They process in their own time.  They crave positive attention.  They need to hear how much they matter.  Now, my bracelets were not magical, and I am not an expert.  But, I have loved every moment with every child I have been blessed to spend time with.  I have been encouraged by every proverbial light bulb that has been lit.  I have been inspired by every story that has been told.  I have been challenged to grow as I have watched them meet their personal goals.  I am so grateful for the little boy so long ago who brought me that awesome gift of bracelets.  I am beyond thankful that God has allowed me opportunities to love on and teach children.  I am praying that He continues to grant me those moments all the days of my life!