A Story Without an Ending

About eight weeks ago it was the week before Christmas.  Finals were over.  Shopping was done.  The house was decorated.  And I was ready to relax and enjoy my Christmas break.

And then I got a Facebook message from my friend Connie.  It said this:

Hey Sara, this is Connie. I am looking for a speaker to join our program for the January Expresso. I apologize for the late notice, but I’m having a hard time finding the person God has for us. Maybe you? There is absolutely no pressure as i want this to be a God thing. As I was working on in, I thought since TBC sponsored Haiti Lifeline for their Christmas project maybe you sharing some of your experiences and story would be perfect. Melissa [G] is lined up to share that night and I would love it if you would give this some prayerful consideration. It is January 12th and I would be happy to help you in any way with questions, format etc. Let me know what you think {smile emoticon} Merry Christmas!!!

And I cussed in my head.  Every cuss word I could think of.  I may have even made some new ones up.  Merry Christmas, indeed.  *humph*

And though I firmly told God “no”, still I spoke. I spoke on Haiti and our involvement and those feelings I had cloaked and closeted for six years.  And I got vulnerable in ways that I desperately needed to but hadn’t in a very, very, very long time.  And God broke my heart so badly again but then He began healing me and putting those pieces together.  The balm of transparency and Christian sisterhood is like no other.  That night, as hard as it was and as hard as I tried to get out of it, was a gift.

Below is the script from what I shared that night.  For those that know me personally, the audio link can be found on my Facebook page.  This may be the one and only time you’ll hear me say that I feel like I spoke better that night than what I wrote, so listen if you have time.  But if you’re like me and would prefer to read, or don’t have access to the link, keep reading.

Good evening! This is our family. My husband Matt, myself, and our five girls.  Many of you are familiar with our family, particularly with Matt and his involvement in and leadership of Haiti Lifeline here in Topeka. I gave my testimony here at Expresso seven or eight years ago and that was hard as I shared about my history of abuse and less-than-great life choices before marriage. Then I shared a couple of years ago at iMom about modesty and that was hard because my views on that topic don’t always line up with the more conservative lines of thinking, so I was nervous to share in church. But I can honestly say that tonight’s topic has put me on my face before God more than anything I’ve shared about before. And the good news is, that means He’s still molding me and shaping me and giving me new experiences to help me grow. The bad news is, I’m really not very old yet, and I’m slightly terrified of what He might put in my life for my next Expresso topic! Haha

When Connie asked me to share tonight and she asked me to specifically share on our family’s involvement with Haiti, I laughed. Really, really hard. Then I copied the Facebook message and sent it to Matt and he laughed with me. And then I firmly told God “no” and I told Him this was too much to ask. My feelings on this topic were too fresh, too raw, and this was just too soon. I may have spent the past several weeks pouting to God that this just isn’t fair.

My story of our involvement in Haiti is uncomfortable and unexpected. And most people aren’t quite ready to hear it when I start to tell it. But Connie assured me you all could be brave with me as I unpack how God has used this ministry over the past six years to remind me again and again how desperately I need Him.

Talking about our involvement in the ministry makes me feel like this:

To give a little background for those that may not know, Haiti Lifeline Ministries began in 1999 in answer to a call to support the orphan and widow, to meet the need of the helpless and fatherless. HLM exists to provide food, shelter, education, and medical care to those in need.   We exist to share the love of Jesus with the people of Haiti, to be His hands and feet by meeting tangible needs such as food, clothing, medical care, shelter, education, and more.

Our family became actively involved in Haiti Lifeline Ministries in 2010, right after the earthquake. Matt’s brother and sister were on the ground in Haiti when the earthquake happened, six years ago today. Their team (traveling through HLM) was stuck there for two or three days as everyone in the country scrambled to find a way out and we sat at home watching the images of pain and suffering roll endlessly across our television screen. We, like many, felt driven and compelled to give, to act, to do something. So we organized a citywide garage sale with all proceeds going toward the ministry. And God showed up in amazing ways – through the use of a local church building, through more donations than we could hold, and through overwhelming community support and generosity. Upwards of $18,000 was raised that weekend and we were in awe of our very big God and His very big love for this very small nation.

Before that sale I had wanted to become involved in HLM for at least a year or two already. I wanted to travel. I wanted to go serve and get plugged in. Matt was busy with work, he didn’t have time, nor did he have a desire. He loved to give, not go. But I needed an outlet, something that got me out of stay-at-home-mom mode and made me feel like I had an identity and Matt supported my desire to go, to be involved somewhere, anywhere. I really wanted HLM to be my outlet, my “thing”.

In the days and weeks after the sale, however, others began to approach Matt about going and I would practically stand in front of him and say, “No, wait, pick me! Pick me!”, all while he stood in the back saying “No, I can’t go. Work is too busy. I’m sender, not a go-er.” Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. But it was like they never saw me. No one ever asked me to go. No one even recognized my desire.

So I stepped back. I laid that desire on the altar and began to push Matt to go. I could see that the Lord really did want him to go and that he needed to go. And so, with much reluctance and a lot of persuasion, he went on his first traveling team (along with TBC’s Tim Shultz) in January 2011. And God got a hold of his heart, like God does on trips like that. Matt came home charged up and on fire. Driven by the need they had seen and their compulsion to act, Matt and Tim and several others that were involved locally, began to meet to establish and implement new programs.   And because my gifts are administration and organization, I thought I had found my place to serve. I was going to get plugged in!

Meanwhile, we also decided to adopt after Matt’s first trip. On that trip in January, he had been texting me photos of the kids, of Haiti, of everything. And one day this tiny girl popped up on the screen of my Blackberry and I knew – KNEW – this was my child. And Matt knew it too, but neither of us said anything to each other until after he got home and we had time to debrief and download together. But we agreed and we knew that bringing her into our home was the next right step. So in addition to home schooling and assisting in the GR office, I was also now the chief executive officer of adoption paperwork and we were unknowingly beginning a two year long pregnancy.

Because of my multitude of responsibilities and being wired in such a way that I don’t often rush, I didn’t move quite fast enough for Matt and the things I was tasked with in the ministry he would usually end up doing himself. In his defense, I know he felt like he was just taking something off of my already full plate. He was never intentionally pushing me out of the ministry, but slowly that’s what happened.

I don’t know at what point exactly I began to check out of the ministry and the business. I’m sure it began when I started to realize I wasn’t really needed. Then, I came home from my first trip in February 2012 simultaneously moved and impacted and also completely disillusioned with the entire experience. Looking back, I know that my experience and take-away had more to do with how God created me and the environment that I was placed in, but at the time Satan capitalized on the opportunity to convince me it was because there was something wrong with me and doubts were planted in my mind and division was planted in our marriage. And Satan was patient to let them both grow, faithfully feeding the doubt and the division for three long years.

I would end up traveling to Haiti two more times before fully checking out. I felt an expectation – mostly from myself – to be engaged, to love this place and this ministry as much as my husband did. I felt a deep deep insecurity because we weren’t doing ministry together like we had always thought and dreamed we would, and it felt so much like we were drifting apart. But every time I returned from Haiti I became more discouraged about my role in the ministry and its place in our marriage, and to protect myself from my own sense of failure, from the discomfort that came from the disconnect, I built walls and decided I didn’t care about it. But then those walls began to expand into other areas of our marriage and relationship until we were finally living more like roommates than lovers and best friends. And there’s a certain sense of shame that comes – at least for me – when your husband, your family, sort of became the face of an organization that you care about and support and are deeply invested in, but also kind of sort of secretly wish it would just go away so you can just stop talking and hearing about it – being reminded of the mistress it has become for your husband – filling him in ways you no longer do.

During this time Matt had also hired help for the office – both the business and the ministry. And so, the small role I had in both of those arenas was now given to someone else. And these changes were needed and had (and still have) my full support. I could no longer do the amount of work that needed to be done because of the girls’ school commitments and other obligations, but I had no idea the impact relinquishing that role would have on my confidence and sense of security in our marriage.

As Matt continued to excel in both business and ministry – becoming more deeply involved in HLM’s daily operations while maintaining his growing business, I began to sink farther down. I was homeschooling our children – a calling, yes, but one that left me feeling empty, drained, and like a failure because I couldn’t meet my own expectations or the expectations I felt from the world. I felt myself becoming invisible, unseen, insignificant. It seemed that my role was to hold down the fort at home while Matt chased dream after dream in the marketplace. Meanwhile, the online world was telling me to chase MY dreams, to fulfill MY purpose. But I didn’t know what that looked like anymore or how to do that while home schooling four (and eventually five) children.

When Amania came home I once again faced the chasm between expectation and reality. Other than minor hiccups, I think most of the family, most people that know us, would say Amania fit right in like she’s always been here. Except with me. Our connection feels anything but natural and I haven’t yet experienced that “knitting together” or real sense of bondedness that is often alluded to in adoption literature. An awkward distance hangs between us, an elephant in the room that I’m sure we both recognize, and my other girls as well. And I often remind myself of that day in January 2011 when I saw that first picture and my heart and my spirit said clearly “That’s my child!”. But Satan does not fail to water those seeds of doubt and fear and failure as he tempts me to build my walls ever-higher.

The summer after she came home, we moved. Because we are crazy people. And we left the house I loved and that had been our home for nearly ten years to move to one that made a thousand percent more sense for our family, but felt nothing like home. And instead of spending that summer resting and healing and bonding as a family, we spent that summer repairing and packing and finding our way.

This was the pattern we continued in for another year or so – Matt dreaming, leading, going; me fading, dying, staying.

*****

It’s important to know that I’ve carried depression as part of my story for twenty years now, beginning with a major depressive episode when I was in high school, then settling into a predictable seasonal sadness that was manageable with supplements and essential oils and trips to the tanning bed.  But then November 2014 came and it was as if I was pushed, emotionally, off of some great cliff into a darkness that still escapes description or explanation.  And I wrestled for weeks, months, to grasp hold of something, anything to make sense of it all. The ministry had truly become Matt’s mistress and we both seemed resigned to living parallel lives, clinging to our marriage because we knew it was the right thing to do; going to bed every night with Satan whispering to us both “You should just leave. It would all be so much easier if you two were apart. Everyone would be happier.”

This continued all winter and as February wrapped up and March entered in with hope of spring and sunshine and relief for my worn out soul, every time I thought I was making progress, gaining a foothold, getting on top of the wave that was this drowning depression and dying marriage, it was as if someone would come and physically shove me back under, to the bottom.  Until I decided I was done fighting whatever, whoever, it was that was holding me under.

I felt like a pawn in someone else’s game.  I had prayed with no response.  I had asked God to show me what sin or error might have put me here.  Silence.  I asked others to pray for me.  Relief, then back under.  So finally I surrendered.  I was in a pit and I was going to sit there until God came back to get me. My faith was crumbling, but I had just enough left to believe He would.  Eventually.  Only because He had done it before.

CS Lewis writes, “It is not trying that is ever going to bring us home.  All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, “You must do this.  I can’t.”

So I decided I would sit.  Because I couldn’t strive anymore. But I was angry with God.  So angry.  I was empty and defeated.  I had no kind words to say to Him or about Him.  I felt completely abandoned.  I felt like He had turned His back on me.  I didn’t understand what was going on and I truly didn’t know if I could continue to trust a God who played people like chess pieces, who allowed broken hearts and broken lives.  Who allowed devastation around the world and in my own home.  It felt like too much to bear.

Ellie Holcomb wrote at Easter last spring:

“Betrayed. My stomach turns at the word. I remember vividly when someone I loved dearly and deeply turned into an enemy. There was a proverbial knife in my back and I was hurt, angry, and aching. I wonder how many of you have walked through betrayal. It is awful. You’re powerless to stop the pain and you keep wishing in vain that it could somehow be a different story.

Jesus wished it could be a different story, too. Just before this scene in Mark where He is betrayed by Judas and arrested, He was in a garden on his knees in deep distress, begging His Father to take the cup (Mark 14:35). Jesus knew what was coming and that it would feel unbearable. He’d asked His three dearest friends on earth to pray for Him, too—but three times, He comes to find them asleep. In His deepest hour of need, dreading what lies before Him, His friends can’t even keep their eyes open.

Son of Man, Son of God, Living Word—betrayed for our sake. He drinks the cup of death that we deserve, so that our cups might overflow.

He was arrested so we could be set free. 

He was deserted so we could know we’re never alone.

He was betrayed so we could be held in the arms of Love.”

While I sat in that pit, Jesus was writing a different story, a deeper story.  He was writing what He writes best – redemption.  While I wrestled and strived with God, Jesus began a miracle work of healing and restoration.  Because He knows what it is to feel as though God has turned His back on you (although we know God never truly does).  As He prayed in the Garden and all His friends slept, and then ran away.  As He hung on that cross and God turned His own broken heart away for the sin Christ bore…..Jesus knew what it was to be completely alone in the darkest place imaginable.

Sometimes we don’t understand the things that happen to us.  Sometimes the hard things in our life are part of a story God is writing in someone else’s life.  But sometimes He gives us the opportunity to choose the direction the story will go.  I thought this past winter this ministry would cost me everything – my mind, my marriage, my faith.  I had nothing to hold on to. God allowed that.  And that’s still hard to rest in nearly a year later.  But God has allowed other dark seasons in my life, seasons that I also thought would cost me everything – truly right down to my life.  But He wasn’t finished writing.  And He isn’t still.  As a writer, I understand that stories often take unexpected and painful turns, and if our characters were humans with free will, they would no doubt rail against the author in anger and confusion.  And while human authors write countless different stories with good and bad endings, my God only writes one kind of ending in the lives of His children – restoration and redemption.  Truth, beauty, and hope.  He will restore what the locust has eaten. He will redeem.  He will make all things new.

And He has, little by little. Because He is faithful, even when He makes no sense. Matt and I both began to see how we were destroying our marriage – him with his all-or-nothing drive, me by building walls and checking out. And he committed to putting some of that energy back into us. And I committed to re-engaging and tearing down walls again.

This past year has been a gradual rebuilding both of our faith and our marriage – often two steps forward, one step back. After a clear and precious sign from God that it was time for me to try again – when I who never gets letters from Haiti got a letter from Haiti the day after praying for a sign! I traveled to Haiti in November and can honestly say I still don’t “get it”, I mean, I get it, but I still don’t connect like others do, but it was the best team experience I’ve had and I will go again because it is important to my marriage and because I believe God is using it in my life in ways I still don’t understand. And I’m learning the power of being small and that it is okay to dream small dreams – like simply being a housewife and loving on and serving women in the best ways I can – through words and transparency and sharing real life. He’s teaching me to stop feeling invisible and unseen and instead recognize that I am but small and hidden in Christ. That sometimes the world needs some smaller dreams and smaller goals – people who are willing to sit in the shadows or stand on the sidelines, who will do the work that goes unseen. Because God sees. And God has purpose in it all. And I’m recognizing the life- and death-giving power of expectations and the importance of whose expectations we are living for. The world’s expectations will only wear us down and bring death. But God’s expectations, His perfect plans for us, bring life and hope and peace.

And as I look back on our past six years of ministry involvement, I can see God’s hand in many ways:

  • A child sponsorship program instituted
  • A medical clinic built and stocked
  • The involvement of more churches across the state and across the nation (including TBC)
  • Countless people involved, including dozens from TBC
  • TBC’s incredible, generous giving this past Christmas to the One Body project
  • Hearts changed and eyes opened to the deep needs in the world
  • Growing from 2 teams in 2011 to 9 this year
  • Our fifth daughter joining our family
  • Lifelong friends made through ministry and adoption
  • My children given hearts for Haiti and a vision for need around the world
  • A bigger view of God and how He rarely gives us what we think we most want, but always gives us what we most need, and how He may lead us to the bottom of the pit, but He will wait with us there and carry us back out.

God is big and mysterious and His ways are higher, and often harder, than our ways.  And sometimes that’s scary and confusing and hard to swallow.  But He is good.  And He is true.  And when I had lost almost all faith, that is what I clung to.

Restoration is not complete for me and as I met with Connie last week to talk about tonight, I told her how much I wished I could wrap this all up with a nice big bow and tell you how we’ve come full-circle and how this ministry is as fulfilling for me as it is for Matt and that I can’t wait to go back and that I see all the purpose in all the pain through all the years, but this time I can’t. This is a story in progress and God is still writing the ending. I will tell you, though, that I’ve come to believe that if we are willing to go to God with our hurt and our pain and release it all to Him, He is faithful to create glory out of it. My God, He writes redemption and He writes hope and He writes truth and goodness – even in the midst of the pain. And so I know that He is writing a good ending for this story too.

For His Glory ~

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5 thoughts on “A Story Without an Ending

  1. Wow. There is a plethora of writing here that applies directly to the experiences we have gone through within the past 4 years–quite eerily I must say. Glad I decided to revisit your page. Thank you for sharing your heart. The therapy it provides, to my depraved humanity, offers additional healing.

  2. Your transperancy is nothing short of inspiring. Your braveness is beautiful and meaningful. Thank you so so so much for your honesty and following God. It truly means something.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I realize this isn’t a new post, but this morning I felt like doing some digging. I know Matt from the coffee shop next door to GR and HLM, and have laughed at all the goofy pictures he posts of you. It is incredibly comforting to know we all struggle. Even those you may admire. So thank you for sharing, and I hope we can all get together soon!

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