As I reflect on my early life, I see how growing up without a mom and then with a Disney-esque stepmom shaped me. It may sound melodramatic, but I don’t really like recounting my childhood. It feels like opening the door to a foreboding closet…one I have closed on purpose. But my good Heavenly Father is always with me, and I’ve learned that, if it is a dark closet, He walks into it with me and brings His light.
During my childhood, the word for my Dad is “present.” The word for my Mom is “absent,” since she left when I was 3 and my sister was 9 months old. Troubled and lost, she became an alcoholic. My Dad managed to raise two young girls for about 6 years until he married. The qualities of my Dad in those years that I experienced, and continue to experience into my adulthood are: persevering, providing, nurturing (yes, I said nurturing!), faithful, smart, and hard-working. He’s an engineer by nature and education, and he is a good man.
I’ve had two stepmothers. The one I have now, Cheryl, loves my dad and my kids almost as if they were her natural grandchildren. She is also a Christ-follower, and she is dear to me. The first step mom had a negative impact on me, and is the primary reason for my dark closet. She entered when I was 9 years old and even though I wanted to please as a child and really did long for a mom (I chose to call her “Mom” when they married), she did not accept me. Suffering from an undiagnosed mental health condition, she was very deceptive and jealousy-driven, creating a scary home life. I spent my childhood confused and trying to be unnoticed even though I yearned like all children to be loved and known.
At age 12, our family life took a turn when my older step sister told me my step mom attempted suicide. Within a few days, she came home from the hospital, and we had a family meeting. This situation highlighted that we needed something, and maybe that something was God… so we began attending a local church. I remember my first service, and the way God spoke to my heart. This place filled me with a sense of belonging and being known, though I couldn’t have described it.
We continued going to church, and I trusted in Christ at a youth camp. Something changed right away – where I had felt alone the night before, that night I felt a Presence. For the first time, I understood that by trusting Christ I would spend eternity with God because Jesus had dealt with my sins on the cross. But, unfortunately, I misunderstood in the following years that following God meant “doing this and not doing that,” and so I did not grow much in understanding my relationship with Christ.
I discovered in college that when I had trusted Christ the living God not only knew and loved me, but also wanted to interact with me daily. I went from a life of dull gray to vivid color! A mentor, Pam, served as God’s instrument, along with others I met in a campus Christian organization. She and they loved me, enjoyed me, and taught me how to walk with Jesus. It altered the trajectory of my life. I had been brought out of my dark closet into the light of a relationship with God and His people. This brought a lot of good change, and I began to “re-member” the hurt of my childhood, meaning I began to look back through the perspective of the gospel (re-membering). I began a long slow process of forgiveness and repair.
This process impacted my family of origin, most notably my mom. My mom and I are in a good story together. It’s a long story, but sobriety and redemption and forgiveness are all in there. We have become friends. It started in college, with my growth in Christ and with her becoming sober through an anonymous program. As I have encountered various hurts in relating to her, the Lord repeatedly has helped me to cast my longings, expectations, and disappointments on Him. He has met me with His hope and the mysterious power of His kind of forgiveness that overcomes sin and sorrow.
Over time I realized the tools I had developed to survive the “darkness” of my childhood had far outgrown their usefulness. With help, I entered the process of identifying the patterns which needed to be taken out, looking at them, and refitting according to what is true and life-giving. Many promises and principles from God’s Word have been instrumental. I have grown emotionally and deepened spiritually as I see God’s goodness.
One important evidence of the work God has been doing is reflected in my marriage and family of five. I married Gordon at age 25, and we have 3 grown children. Our marriage and family have been a place to belong, share love, grow, and be known. It is so healing to be a part of this little community. Such a contrast to what I experienced growing up.
My mom made a comment a number of years ago which revealed God’s redemptive work. For the past 15 years, she visits us once or twice a year. While I drove her to the airport after a visit, she seemed refreshed after being around our little family. Full of joy, my mom wondered aloud, “With your background” – and she meant the background she helped create by abandoning us, along with the dark years of living with my first step mom, and along with the alcoholism that is in our family history – “how is it possible that you can have such a great, loving family?!?” Her observation struck me because of the redemption and the “beauty from ashes” which so evidently impacted her.
The Lord used these beautiful images to speak to me from the book of Isaiah:
Indeed, the LORD will comfort Zion; He will comfort all her waste places. And her wilderness He will make like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the LORD; Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of a melody… (Is 51)
To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD…to comfort all who mourn…giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting… (Is 61)
As I meditated on these, I thought of how the Lord had taken my darkness, my wasteland of a childhood and had comforted me and given me a garland instead of ashes and the oil of gladness instead of mourning and the mantle of praise instead of spirit of fainting. Ashes, mourning, fainting and emptiness should all characterize my life, but He has done something new, wonderful, and life-giving.