Just a little over one year ago, I running my own life – and it wasn’t going so well. Having been an evangelical Christian believer from my 20’s to my mid-40’s, I found myself at age 59 with a wide, thirteen-year gap separating me from God. But last Christmas, God renewed me so cleverly, so completely and so beautifully, that my faith has been in overdrive ever since.
Last year, my troubles had multiplied one on top of another. I lost my ability to sing due to a larynx issue ending a 40 year-strong passion; a large employment gap in my day job found me freelancing for minimum wages for years; and drama at my newly contracted job defied all reason - and I couldn’t handle it on my own.
Finally brought to my knees, I wanted desperately to come back to my former intimate relationship with God, but I wasn’t sure how to return from my current distant condition. I had allowed that closeness I once felt to slip away.
Well I’d no sooner said “amen,” when my neighbor announced to me that she and her husband had just been baptized at a nearby church, Eastside Christian Church. Strangely, I had never heard of it. I’d been church shopping on and off in the area for 8 years and never run across it. So I decided to visit.
At the first sermon, a connection was formed when Gene shared intimate details about his past divorce. Having divorce mark my background, along with a loss of ministry leadership from a past church, I immediately looked up and said, “Thank you, God - this is a church that can accept me.” Gene mentioned the woman at the well, who had been married many times, and the freedom that she received after meeting Jesus, no matter what her culture thought of her, transcended her past mistakes. Gene said, “God can use your biggest failure to be the launching pad to your greatest calling.”
Although this got my attention, the strange thing is, my biggest failure wasn’t even my failed marriages. My biggest failure was being convinced that I did not have the capacity to love others as Christ loves.
Thirteen years prior to this spiritual rebirth, my spirit was crushed by the death of my younger sister. Because she was extremely ill, medicines she was taking caused her such extreme anxiety that she had been on suicide watch that week and I was supposed to be with her that night. I was tired and wanted to attend my small group - a planning committee for a women’s retreat of a local mega-church. Although she was staying with another friend that night, it still happened. I know her death was not my fault, but the circumstances left me feeling partly responsible for not stopping her.
In the years that followed, my spirit was crushed. I was convinced that I no longer had the right to bring my emotions to God. I felt my failure to love her enough over my own selfishness was an unforgivable sin. I had failed her, I had failed my 18-year-old nephew (her only child), and I had mostly failed God.
Over a decade later, a healing began at the Christmas Service. I was so nurtured by the story Christ’s birth that I began to again have feelings of connection to God’s love that I had completely neglected for over a decade. God seemed to be assuring me that I was safe at home now. His presence was palpable to me that night, giving me the same peace and joy I had known all those years before.
A few weeks later, I walked into Guest Central with the New Year’s resolution to connect to this church as my home church – all by myself without my husband. I asked to talk to someone who could help recommend a small group of women my age and Jim Swaney sat down with me on the next Sunday morning, heard my story, and asked, “Have you gone to the service this weekend?” I told him I hadn’t and he said, “You need to go – it’s all about suicide.”
I could not deny that God Himself made a personal appointment for me that day. Hesitant to go into the sanctuary by myself to listen because of my emotions, I went home and watched the live stream. Gene immediately explained the correct theology behind suicide and salvation and tears flowed. He had the answers I didn’t have for my sister – that we are saved by God’s gracious faithfulness to us. He also spoke to people like me who experienced this type of loss – to the anger and the guilt. He emphasized how necessary it was to seek God for the ability to forgive myself and to forgive her - it was like a huge message on a billboard from heaven to me. God spoke directly to me, there was no doubt. My dormant faith grew ten times its size in that one moment. I’ve continued to wake up spiritually and once again experience that God is real, He’s here and He comes after His lost sheep. He was calling me back home and welcoming me with love and empathy.
One year later, I could write a book about how He has opened the door to healing, ministry, fellowship and purpose for me. I thank Him every day for the gift He gave me last Christmas. The perfect present of returning to His presence.
UPDATE: Joni, a professional journalist, is a leader for Eastside’s storytelling ministry, a Tech Team member, running graphics for worship lyrics and sermons, a Bible study leader/host of a 12-woman Eastside Connection group, and a creative arts team strategy participant.