I recently joined a women’s group at our church and was asked to give my testimony or tell my story to the group. It gave me pause…what is my story? I spent time thinking about it, but never put pen to paper because my story is 39 years in the making and I had 15-20 minutes to share it all. On the day I was set to tell my story I still had just a jumbled bunch of mental notes in my head. A friend of mine was working from my house that day and I shared with her this task and how I had no idea what I was going to say. [By the way, this is so unlike me. I was a Toastmaster for years and had gotten good at creating a story line, delivering my story with feeling and doing it on a time schedule. This task was different. I had never been asked to tell my Christian story before.] My friend asked me to tell her my story. I started with a bunch of excuses about why this story wouldn’t be what she expected, why I hadn’t prepared, why this was hard for me and being the great friend that she is – she didn’t even listen to that and pushed me to just start telling her my story. Once I started talking it was so easy to keep talking, and as I talked she would ask me questions that helped me edit as we went. I made notes and felt great heading into my women’s group that night. Now I’m going to share my story with you – should you read on. Remember God has a plan for everyone’s life.
One reason why creating my story was so hard was because I didn’t have this big turning my life over to Jesus moment. My mom started taking me to church from the week I was born. I was born and raised in Monroe, NC and we were members of Memorial United Methodist Church. As a child I was at church every time the doors opened. I was an acolyte and I sang in the choir. As I got older I got even more involved as an active member of our kids group who participated in bake sales, talent shows, sat in the infant room during church services. I had a great childhood in the church. I had made friends and people looked at me as a leader in the church from a young age and I loved it. However, as active as I was it was ceremonious not emotional. I went to church, read my Bible and sang the hymns because it was expected – I didn’t know of a relationship with this God and Jesus I read and sang about.
In middle school we started going to a small Baptist church right down the road from our house; Morgan Mill Road Baptist Church. Similarly, I got really involved quickly and did all the things. I made a lot of great friends and I did learn about the relationship that Jesus wanted to have with me, but there was still this mechanical feel to the relationship process – communion, pray, church, pray, be a good person and tell people about Jesus. I did it all, but I didn’t feel anything in return and was pretty sure that while I wanted to be all in for God, he had somehow forgotten about me or didn’t pay as much attention to me because I was already doing all the things. A group of us from church went to a Billy Graham crusade event in Charlotte and it was there that I first experience this heart shift. I felt the words that Billy Graham said. I prayed the prayers and sang the songs. I wanted more. Soon after that crusade event I started dating a guy who took me to a small Baptist church that was just getting started; Open Book Baptist Church. I was about 16 at the time. The first church building of this new church was small and white and held maybe 100 people if we were all sitting super close. It fanned the fire that the Billy Graham event had lit. I continued learning of a God that yearned for a relationship with me. Who loved me at all cost. Died for me even. There was enthusiasm across the congregation, hands were raised in praise, people prayed at the alter in together lifting each other up, I got baptized. I loved it so much that I invited my mom and sister to come with me. [Note: In all my years my dad never went to church with us besides the occasional Christmas service or to watch me or my sister perform.] My mom and sister started coming. We all joined this church. My sister and I were very active in the youth group, choir, we sang during the worship service. In my walk with Christ this church opened me up to the relationship that was there and I pursued it.
I went to college and attended a small church on campus a couple of times, but came home as often as I could in large part to go to church. My mom was diagnosed with Breast Cancer right after I started college. She fought for years and members of the church were by our family’s side the entire fight. When my mom died I went to the funeral in that same church and read a poem I had written for her before she died. [Side bar: My freshman year in college, I had met a friend on AOL Instant Messenger that I’ve never met in person who read my poem, printed it and had autographed by Thomas Kinkaid at a gallery showing in his home town. My mom’s favorite artist was Thomas Kinkaid and that poem meant so much to her not only because I wrote it, but because he signed it. She cried the Christmas that I gave it to her.] When we left church following the hearse I knew it would be hard to go back. It took months before I actually crossed the threshold again. My mom and I had sat in the same pew of that same church for years. Now that she was gone how could I sit there without her? I did go back. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done. During the meet n’ greet portion of that first church service back, two women noticed me and came up to hug me and tell me how much they loved that I was there. One of them said “Emily, you really should start coming back. We miss you and don’t want you to go to hell.” The other lady agreed with a constant head nod. It took the breath out of me. Yes, we went to a hell fearing church. Yes, you should know that if you don’t give your life to Jesus that there is a hell that you should be scared of. I know these women meant well, but not coming to church was not reason to not make it through the pearly gates based on my Bible and I’m pretty sure we read the same one. It turned me off.
I didn’t go back to church for years. I married a guy that provided an outlet for me to escape. He didn’t go to church and didn’t care that I didn’t either. The day we got married I knew that this was not the relationship I was meant to be in. He passed out from too much alcohol that night and I went to my mom’s grave in tears because I knew that I shouldn’t have done it. I told her (my mom) that I would try and make it work because I knew that God disliked divorce and I didn’t want to be adulterous if it didn’t. I tried for 2 years to make it work and it just didn’t. He wasn’t abusive or anything – it just wasn’t where I was meant to be and I knew it from the start. So I filed for divorce. I didn’t want to waste any more of his time or mine. We had no kids or possessions to split. I left. I took all of our debt with me because I thought it would be easier and I just wanted out. I worked my butt off for years to pay-off that debt and save money for my first month’s rent and deposit for an apartment. I slept on friend’s couches until I saved enough money for that first apartment. His family sued me…..the divorce was so much harder than the actual married part – but it was the right thing to do.
I started going back to church with some friends of mine and was really enjoying the experience, but it was different. It wasn’t home for me. I reached out to an old boyfriend of mine from college who left a deep mark on my life and we connected again. Years passed. That rekindled romance turned into marrying the love of my life. My husband has read the Bible cover-to-cover (something I still haven’t done), and studied the Bible often, but he hadn’t found a church that would foster his desire to study the Bible. Praying and reading the Bible together aren’t part of our norm, but the desire to find a church was growing in our relationship now that we had 2 adorable kids ages 4 and almost 3 at the time.
When my daughter was born I had this desire to go to church, but didn’t want to push my husband into an environment where he wasn’t comfortable. He’s an introvert and isn’t comfortable in attending church for the sake of community. He wants to attend church for the Bible study. My daughter’s birth also made really internalize the example I set. My mom had been such a great example for my sister and I. She never told us what to do or what to say, but acted and spoke how she wanted us to so that we could see the example. Her actions spoke louder than words. I was in my early 20’s when my mom passed away – far too soon for anyone to lose their mom. My dad wasn’t really involved in my upbringing as I recall – so with a new daughter of my own I had no one to ask “Did I do this?, “Is this normal?” I desired the community that a church would provide, and I prayed that God would help us raise Madison knowing Him while we figured out how we would incorporate faith into our family.
When my son was born the desire to find a church grew for both my husband and I, and we started talking about it conversationally from time-to-time. About a year ago we committed to visiting churches around Charlotte to see if we could find one, and we did! We’ve been going to Forest Hill Church (Southpark location) for nearly a year. I have found community in my women’s group of course, but also in neighbors that attend the same church and friends at work who I’ve learned attend the same church at different locations. When my son was 2 we had a really tough season. He wasn’t talking and used his hands and mouth to communicate (pinch, push, bite). My son at 2 was heads and shoulders taller and much stronger than many kids in his same daycare class. Now at nearly 4 his favorite character is the Hulk – go figure. But I say all of that to say that a neighbor who we ran into at church reached out to me and welcomed me into her home, allowed me to cry and share my frustrations with the system and desires for my son – she shared information about a similar situation with one of her sons, prayed with me and still checks on me from time-to-time and now we’re on the other side. I mean, we still have to talk about how Hulk can’t smash every thing, every where, but he’s talking and can at least respond and tell us that he understands what we’re saying. I love the community that we’ve found in our church and I’m excited to watch my kids grow in this environment. My son talks about Jesus every day. Every. Day. My daughter got to thank a guy who leads worship at our church for making a song that she sang to herself one day when the bus let her off without a parent at the bus stop and she tried to cross a busy road by herself. She said I just kept singing “I won’t be afraid, the Lord is with me.”
I’m really excited about this faithful life we’re fostering. We’re not perfect by any means – far from it, but I know that I have a God that I can lean on when things are hard or when I don’t understand. I can ask him to reveal things to me. He wants me to lean in on him. Quick short story. As we were looking for a quick daycare change for my son a couple of years ago now – I was in a dark, dark place. Daycare waiting lists in our area are years long in most cases. I work full time which includes some travel. I’m a type A perfectionist at work and this whole abrupt daycare shift was big and for weeks I had felt like I was failing at being a mom and at work…it was too much. On the night after my son’s last day of school at his former daycare I cried out to God in the middle of the night after my family went to sleep. My heart was so heavy with fear and uncertainty of what Monday would bring that I couldn’t take it any more. I got out of bed and went into my son’s room and cried out loud go God.
My prayer was something like: God, I have no idea where Cole will go to school next week, how can I work from home with a 2 year old needing my constant attention? Please God – make a way for us. Take this burden from me because it’s too much. I need to know that my son has a place waiting for him where he’ll thrive, not just survive the day; and Lord, if my day needs to look different than it does today please give me sight to see how I can make it work. Lord, please make this whole situation better.
On Monday of that next week I had calls from 3 (THREE) daycares that had immediate openings for Cole. They were all part-time daycares which would mean that my day would look different, but there were 3 places for my son. I took the day off work and toured all three. I enrolled him in one across town that same day and he is THRIVING. In less than a year he is talking so much, knows his shapes and colors, is starting to write and he’s not even 4 yet. God made a way. I’m not saying that my side of the equation was easy. I had to have some very real conversations with my boss about how daycare was across town and didn’t open until 8:15am and how I would need to take a later lunch to pick him up and I still needed to find a part-time nanny to watch him in the afternoons, but it’s all worked out and I’m learning to not feel the need to take on 100% of the burden, but to ask God to help me – and he does 100% of the time. I’m learning a lot about myself and changes that I need to make in my life in the process too.
God is so good. That’s my story to date. Keep checking back for more.