When It All Changed (Repost)

(Author’s Note: August means school is right around the corner, and the kids start 4th grade and kindergarten in a few weeks.  Plus, I start a new job after Labor Day – will blog about that soon since I addressed it in an earlier post.  So, I am taking a short break from writing new posts this month so I can focus on time with the kids and getting ready for the new job. 

Have you ever been walking along through your life, happy in your own little bubble of comfort and familiarity, when all of a sudden – BAM – the bubble bursts, and you realize not everybody is like you?  Yep!  That’s exactly how I felt when I was 18 years old, and I stepped onto the campus of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW).

The first 18 years of my life were fairly structured and sheltered.  I had a simple childhood.  Most of the people around me had grown up in a similar way.  Most of my friends were from middle-class, southern, Christian families, too.

My family went to church regularly, and I was saved sometime around 12-years-old.  To add to that, my parents were fairly strict, so I stayed out of trouble in high school.  I grew up in a small town anyway.  Everybody knew my parents and me, so it would have been challenging to get away with very much.  I was what you’d call a ‘good girl’, for the most part, but it wasn’t necessarily because I was convicted as a result of my relationship with God and wanted to bring Him glory.  It was mostly to avoid being grounded and having my car taken away. 🙂

But, when my parents cut me loose on the campus of UNCW in August of 1997, I took full advantage of the 150 miles between my hometown and the exciting new place to which I had moved.  I had my wild streak and made up for the lost time in high school.

(It is noteworthy to mention that, although they were a two-and-a-half-hours drive away from me, my parents and my upbringing still held pretty strong sway over much of my behavior.  I did what I wanted to an extent, but I still held it in check.  That distance didn’t mean they had no influence or power over me at all.  I didn’t want them to make me come home, so I took my rear end to class and made decent grades).

Although I got to exercise my freedom and experience some of the things my parents warned me about, the thing that was damaged most by my choices was my faith…and I didn’t even realize it was happening.

During my first semester as a college freshman, I took an elective called Introduction to Religion.  It was a survey of religion as a whole – more of a philosophical look at the institution of religion, if I remember correctly.  I have no idea why I took it though; I must have needed an elective, and it fit into my schedule.

I distinctly remember a lecture early in the semester when the teacher said that religion was man’s creation.  He explained that man-made religion was a way to answer life’s big questions: Why am I here?  How did I get here?  What happens when I die?

Those words stand out to me even now.  That was a pivotal moment for me.  I should have followed Paul’s warning to the Corinthian Christians in 2 Corinthians 10:5…”take captive every thought to obey Christ.”  But I didn’t do that. I highly doubt I even knew that was a thing.

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Instead, I remember thinking that my eyes were being opened.  I was excited!  I felt enlightened!  I felt as though I were figuring out some mystery all by myself.  This was an epiphany – an important revelation to which I was privy.  I thought, “Everyone is just trying to figure out life and make it in this world!  We just do it differently.”

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This enticed me further onto a path that I happily walked down.  I was willing.  I was discovering.  I was eager to uncover more of this new reality about which I was learning.  I didn’t see it at the time, but these patterns of thought were what led me to completely turn my back on Jesus and spend more than 10 years walking out on my own.  I thought I was liberated.  I thought I was so modern.  But I was heading toward a dangerous place, a place God doesn’t intend for His children to go.

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That Christmas Morning Feeling

Christmas is my favorite holiday! The food. The decorations. The tree. The lights. The get-togethers with family and friends. The church programs.  The music!

Y’all! The music!

The whole season is just so bright and happy and jolly.

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Merry and bright – The Hooks Home

Christmases were very merry and bright when I was little – I guess I couldn’t help but love them.

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Christmas Eve at my grandmother’s house with 4 generations!  I’ve spent all my 38 Christmas Eves at her house 🙂                                                                                                                       Photo Credit: Tiffany Murdock Manley

But, the big draw, especially when I was little, was the presents and Santa Claus! Christmas morning – that was the goal the whole season long.

What was under the tree? What was in the stockings? What was wrapped in all those boxes? Who had the present in the biggest box? Who had the present in the heaviest box? Who had the present in the weirdest shaped box?

What was I going to get? Would I get everything I wanted? Would I get something awesome I hadn’t even asked for?

I do remember being disappointed on Christmas morning when I didn’t see a gift that had been on my list…despite all the other gifts I did receive.

I do remember feeling sad when the biggest or heaviest box went to someone else.

I do remember feeling the let-down when I realized there were no more gifts left to unwrap…even as I sat surrounded by all the new toys, games, clothes, or electronics I had already opened.

In my defense, I’m sure I wasn’t the only kid to experience this. Happens every December 25. I imagine many adults can relate to this feeling as well. I know I’ve spent more Christmases than I care to admit feeling sad about something related to the gift-giving part – even as a grown-up.

It definitely helped to have kids. Once we experienced Christmas with our own children, I more fully appreciated how it felt to give.

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Christmas afternoon at my parent’s house now includes 2 sons-in-law and 4 grandchildren!                   Photo Credit: Tiffany Murdock Manley

Still, there was that empty feeling once all the gifts were opened.

Christmas.was.over.

There were 365 days until we’d do that all over again, until we’d have that…feeling.

A-ha! It was the feeling! That was it! That Christmas morning feeling! The anticipation. The eagerness. The excitement. THAT was what was so hard to let go. It had been building up for 24 days or more and once it was over…there was an emptiness. A quietness. A sadness. A let-down.

How do you make that last?

We tried spreading out the present-opening part. We’d open gifts with extended family later on Christmas day and eventually did some present opening the day after Christmas.

But, eventually there are no more gifts to open – no matter how long you extend it.

How do you make that Christmas-morning-feeling last?

The past few years, I’ve been praying about it, and God helped me see that I have to desire Jesus more than gifts. I have to want His presence more than I want presents.

That takes praying and being receptive to the changes God wants to make in my heart. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop liking presents or Christmas morning or my mom’s sausage balls or hearing Bing Crosby sing “White Christmas.” It just means I’ll realize Jesus is more valuable than those things.

It has helped me to do an Advent Bible study; I’ve done one the past two years. It helped me focus on the real reason I celebrate.

This year, before we started our Advent study, I prayed for God to give me a heart like Simeon and Anna (Luke 2: 25-38).

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I want the Holy Spirit to be upon me like it was upon Simeon, to guide and direct me into the presence of the Lord. I want to serve day and night as Anna did. She never left the temple and her reward was to see the Christ child.

To wait in eager anticipation like Simeon and Anna – that is what I want. To wait to see the promise of God fulfilled in Jesus. That is the excitement I want! That will give me the Christmas-morning-feeling all year ‘round.

I prayed for that this year from the first of December until Christmas, and I believe God answered that earnest prayer of His servant girl. Christmas was happy and bright and exciting for me this year. Opening presents was a jolly time, but I didn’t experience the degree of let-down that I sometimes do when the last piece of shredded gift wrapping paper is thrown in the trash. I was happy, but I was also calm…at peace. The value wasn’t in the gifts; it was in God’s promise. We know that He keeps the promises He makes with His people – the Bible is full of evidence for that. So this Christmas, I focused more on God‘s presence than on presents.

Of course, I will have to continue to pray for this daily, especially when next Christmas rolls around, but I know God will fill my heart with His Son if I ask him to do so.

My prayer this day and every day, for me and for you, is that God would give us hearts like Simeon and Anna.

Always eagerly waiting.

Always faithfully serving.

Always gratefully praising.

Until we see our Christ.

Scared Straight?

Jesus has been a part of my life since the beginning – well, since before my life began if you want to go further than that.  My dad was “born and raised” in church as was my mom.  So, my younger sister and I couldn’t help but be, right?  We grew up in the same church where my mom had gone her whole life.  As children, we sang in the children’s choir, went to Vacation Bible School (VBS), participated in church fundraisers, and went to youth lock-ins and retreats.  You name it, and we did it if it was church-related.

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Children’s Choir at Olivet – mid 1980’s. My mom is playing the piano, and my sister and I are in the choir (she is front row, far left, and I am second row, far right).

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Youth retreat – mid 1990’s.  (I am standing on the bench, 5th from the left).

I never felt forced toward God though.  It was just an expectation that my parents had that they made clear to my sister and me: If you live in this house, you will go to church.  So, I went.  I was christened as an infant.   I read my Bible.  I went to Sunday school.  I invited my friends to VBS.  I went through confirmation and joined the church.  I took communion.  I was an acolyte.  But, there was never a time I thought any of that would get me into heaven.  I knew what salvation was and that only salvation would get me into heaven.

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Confirmation Sunday – early to mid 1990’s (the day we joined the church after going through Confirmation classes to learn about the Methodist denomination).  I am the second from the left.

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VBS Final Presentation – mid 1990’s.  (I am second from the right).

As some point, I told my piano teacher that I understood that I could die at any time.  I told her that I knew I wasn’t going to live forever; I wasn’t invincible just because I was young.  I must have been 10 or 11.  She told me that since I was mature enough to accept that fact, I was ready to be saved.

Now, I have to tell you, I have no idea why I was compelled to tell her this!  She wasn’t someone I was particularly close to or with whom I have a spiritual connection.  I guess my preteen self just had this on my mind at the time and she was the one who I felt I could tell.  Who knows!  Whatever the reason for the conversation, it has stuck with me as something that was part of what led me to accept Christ as my Savior.

Then, when I was about 12, I was at a lock-in at my church.  We stayed up all night and watched a series of movies about Jesus’ second coming when He will rapture the living Christians to heaven and about the tribulation and what will happen to people who become Christians during that time.  (This wasn’t the Left Behind movie series; it was earlier than that).

What I remember most is the depiction of the tribulation and what life would be like for people who became Christians after the rapture.  In particular was a scene where Christians were being beheaded because they wouldn’t renounce their belief in Jesus Christ.  The guillotine and the actual beheadings weren’t shown, but what was happening was clearly discussed so I knew what was going on.  The scene played out in a dungeon or cell where the Christians were being held.  Someone was coming to get them, one by one, to take them out to the guillotine.  They were given one last chance to renounce Christ.  If they didn’t, they were beheaded on the spot.  I remember this scene especially because there was a child in the dungeon.  Just before he was taken, the adults told him that he’d be asked if he loved Jesus.  He told them he would say that he did.  Then, the adults told him that he’d be laid down on a stone.  They told him to close his eyes and the next thing he knew, he would see the Lord.  Then, the bad guys came and got him and gave him a red balloon.  He goes out with them; you see the sky through the dungeon’s window, you hear the guillotine fall, then the red balloon rises past the window.

I can only imagine what must have been going on in that 12-year-old brain of mine as I watched that movie.  My heart is racing and I am breathing a little faster just thinking of that scene.

At this point, I must be totally honest and tell you that I don’t want to tell you any more of my story.  I am embarrassed and ashamed.  When God started working on me to write a blog and share my testimony, I told Him no.  Me!  I said no to the King of the World!  I didn’t want to do it.  I didn’t want people to know who I’d been and what I’d done.

God has seen our unloveliness - the deep brokenness and rebellion in our hearts - and instead of withdrawing, He pursues us to the very end.  - Matt Chandler -  Postcard available at https://www.zazzle.com/our_unloveliness_postcard-239551337646667759  #postcard #MattChandler #brokenness #unloveliness #rebellion #Jesus #Christ #withdrawing

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But, if God has ever convicted you to do something, you know He won’t let you go until you obey (remember Jonah?!).  I kept telling Him no, and He kept pursuing me and encouraging me.

Earlier this year, a friend encouraged me to find out how other Christians were blogging.  So, I started looking around and found several blog posts by Ann Voscamp.  One series of posts in particular was very inspiring, so I prayed and journaled about what I was reading; I wrote my thoughts, my fears, and my prayers.

When you get tired of it all, God’s there

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Finally, God showed me that people have to see who I was so they can know who God is.  This is why He gave me this life – my story.  And this is what He intends for me to do – write it for you so you’ll know that God loves you.  So, I’ll put aside my fear and obey.  If you’ll keep reading, I’ll keep writing.

John 15:16-17 God chose you to write a letter to the world. That letter is love.

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Has God ever convicted you of something, and you said no?  What did God want you to do?  How did He pursue you?  Did you finally obey?

A Simple Southern Childhood

My parents told me that one of the first places they took me as an infant was church.  We went to the church my mom had attended her whole life.  It is within walking distance of the house where I grew up and where my parents still live.

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My parents’ house in Lilesville

Most of the people who attended church there were related to me in some way.  Even those that weren’t blood-related were close family friends.  My mom’s mom, my mom’s brothers and sisters, and all her nieces and nephews went there as well.

Sunday lunches were either at church or at my grandmother’s house with my aunts, uncles, and cousins.  You should have seen all that food!  If it was summer, much of it was fresh from the garden my grandma had at her house.  (We were eating clean before clean eating was a food trend.  “Farm to table” was our way of life).

That garden was big – about one-third of an acre at its largest – and I worked in it every summer I can remember well into my 20s.  Even after I got married and moved too far away to work it, there was a garden.  Two summers ago was the first summer in all my years that there wasn’t a garden.  The space is covered over in grass now, and frankly, it still looks weird.  But, my grandmother, who will be 90 in a few days, said she believed it was time to be done.

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Butter beans (first picture) and corn (this picture) grown in the garden my sister and I planted at her house several years ago.  We never got much food, but it was kinda fun to have our own garden, and we actually missed all the time spent in the garden when we were girls.  I think it made us feel a little closer to our mom and our grandmother to have our own garden.

Why am I telling you this?  I want you to know me.  I want you to get a feel for who I am and where I “came from,” so to speak.  You’ve got to know my life to see God in it.

So, this was my childhood.  My parents raised my younger sister and me in the house where they still live.  We went to church.  We worked in the garden.  We played with our cousins.  We went to school.  It was a simple life.  My parents loved us.  They supported us.  They taught us right from wrong.  They took us to church when we were young and expected us to continue to go when we were older.

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Photo Credit Pinterest

In my world, most everyone was like me: grew up in the same place where their parents had grown up, lived with extended family nearby, went to church… just simple, Southern lives.  I saw other stuff on TV and in movies, but most of the people I was exposed to in the first 18 years of my life were more similar to me than different.  And this was my happy little bubble for quite some time.

What was your childhood like?  Did you live in the same place for most of your childhood like I did or did you move around?  Did you live near close family?  Did you grow up in church?  Please share, if you like.