I know what darkness looks like. I know what emptiness is. I know what it is to live so separately from God that you feel swallowed by death. That was me. That was where I lived. It’s hard to receive the light that is God until we face the darkness that envelops us without Him.
I grew up in the small town in Northern California, where everyone knew each other’s story – or, at least, there were stories to tell about everyone. But to be able to trust others with the truth of your own story – that was a different matter.
Arbuckle was a farming town – lots of teachers, lots of farmers. My dad farmed almonds. My grandfather was the town doctor. I was the oldest of five, two sisters after me, then two brothers. We lived outside of town, first in a yellow house with a screened in porch and a huge walnut tree growing in the front yard. We rode our big wheels down the road to the creek. Then when my dad began farming full time we moved to a mobile home – the fastest way to get a new house — right into the middle of the orchard that my dad planted with his own hands.
I used to think it was something about living in a small town that made it impossible for me to feel truly free…. Most people had grown up there, had gone to the same high school that their children now attended, and knew everything there was to know about each others’ families. And even though a place can dig its personality into the skin of your soul, there is something else that goes much deeper that keeps secrets locked inside.
I was so shy growing up that sharing the true story of my heart – all the aches and dreams and joys and regrets –- was something I was afraid to do. I was far more worried about what people would think of me than about being honest about who I was. So, this is my story about my struggle to trust God with the secrets in my heart.
When I was fifteen years old I started having sex with my high school boyfriend. I grew up being told that sex was something “good girls didn’t do until after they get married”. So, okay, then, I wasn’t a “good girl”. But what was critical, more important than anything to me, was that my image as the “good girl”, would not change.
I struggled to maintain the “good girl” image people had of me. I cared desperately about others’ approval, and I couldn’t bear the thought of my parents or my friends ever knowing that I was sleeping with my boyfriend. That just wasn’t something “Jennifer” would ever do.
I was the girl with the good grades — meek and shy in social situations — strong in sports. In my rural high school yearbook, I was the girl voted “most likely to succeed”, “best dressed”, “best smile”. I worked hard to be liked, to be accepted. So, when I became pregnant at sixteen, just before Christmas of my junior year, the only thing I could think about, the only thing that was important to me, what I knew I had to preserve, was the image of myself that I worshipped – My idol, Jennifer, the “good girl”.
I was so swallowed up in the darkness of Self that I couldn’t even face what I had decided to do. Something was going to have to die, and it wasn’t going to be me.
The images I remember — the visits to the counselor to get approval for the abortion . . . the other girls in the waiting room . . . the lights in the room….the noise of the machine… the procedure itself…..all open and close in my memory like the shutter on a camera. All while my parents thought I was Christmas shopping.
There were two other vivid moments that I remember as the most repulsive and the most horrible. The first was when I sat alone, under the cold December sky in my family’s almond orchard and I made the decision to get rid of this “problem”. The second was when I was at basketball practice the day after the procedure and I felt such enormous relief that no one, except my boyfriend, knew what I had done.
The choice I made, at sixteen years old, to have an abortion, represents the darkest place in my heart. It was my choice to end a baby’s life for the sake of preserving the life that I thought was mine. But that was the lie. Even though I thought I was fighting for my life; I was really giving in to death. My heart died that night in the orchard — and with it, so did the baby growing inside me.
I lived for countless years in utter shame of what I had done while at the same time still justifying my decision to myself. It was two and a half years ago, the summer after I had just finished co-leading Mothers Together — and twenty years after the abortion — that God knew I was finally ready to start peeling back the layers of my heart and help me deal with the ugly mixture of shame and fear and pride and rebellion that were keeping me in bondage to myself.
Ironically, as co-leader of a large mother’s ministry at my church, I was in the position of standing up in front of 100+ moms week after week promoting our theme verse for that year for which I was supposed to be a prime example. It was 2 Cor. 12 where God says to the Apostle Paul, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’” And the Apostle Paul then tells the Corinthian believers, “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
But the reality was that I wasn’t experiencing God’s power through my vulnerability, and I certainly wasn’t boasting about my weakness because I was still hiding my biggest secret.
But when my mother’s ministry role was over, God in his faithfulness and kindness allowed all my good plans to come crashing down. At first as summer approached, and my role at the church was about to end, I was excited for what I saw as an opportunity to be fully present for my husband and children. I anticipated carefree times to do fun things with them now that I no longer had to squeeze in phone calls and emails and planning during the days and evenings. It was going to be great! I wouldn’t have the guilt and anxiety of juggling that former extra responsibility.
But then there was that afternoon in June, when my oldest son wouldn’t obey, and I freaked out and locked myself in my room, telling this little seven-year-old, blue-eyed boy that I didn’t want him to talk to me and I didn’t want to hear what he had to say.
On the other side of that door I cried, in desperation, feeling alone and terrified. The despair of my outburst wasn’t just the result of a tough day for me as a mom — one of those many times when I would mess up and say the wrong thing and be harsh instead of loving.
What was happening behind that door was that God was beginning to reveal the depth of darkness that I had lived with for a very long time, parts of me I had not been able or willing to see about myself, all the fear and selfishness and hurt and pride that had demanded me to put myself first — first over the needs of my husband and first over the needs of my children. I had to come first.
Not being willing or able to deal with the shame and pain of my abortion created other wounds that plagued me for a long, long time: the wound of never feeling good enough, the wound of believing I didn’t have a voice, the wound of needing to prove my worth in order to feel valued. It’s pretty awful to have to confess that I craved ministry leadership for the sake of being valued and affirmed by my peers. My life had become all about me.
It was on the other side of that bedroom door that God’s light broke through and I was willing to admit I needed help. It took the loving encouragement of my husband for me to be able to take steps towards dying to that pride that had convinced me I had to do everything on my own.
I went into months of counseling where I discovered the gift of speaking and being heard and accepted and loved. I spent hours opening up to friends from small groups with whom I had never really been vulnerable. I received healing prayer for my abortion and will never forget sweet friends coming into my home and revealing to my heart, in listening prayer, that in that moment that I felt the most alone, the most despair, felt in the deepest darkness – during the night I made that decision, in the orchard, to end the life of my baby – Jesus was still there. He sat beside me on that cold ground and loved me still. And that is what both breaks and heals my heart and makes me astounded by His love the most. He had never turned away. With this community around me holding me up, I continued to feel God the Father gently leaning in and speaking his love and mercy into my heart.
Now since finally – by God’s grace – choosing to face the truth of my shame and fear and sin – rather than run away from it and continue to try to survive on my own, I am learning to let my weaknesses be His power in me.
I remember the details of that summer of rebelling and then trusting, and the people who came around me, pulling me up to the Father, a testament to the need for community around us. We can’t do this on our own. I had my Father God, who grabbed my hand and never let go, and I had friends around me who let me be vulnerable and reminded me how I am completely loved, absolutely cherished, steadfastly adored.
But, oh, it’s not like the struggle of focusing on myself rather than on God is over! It’s still a challenge for me.
But the verses in the beginning of Colossians 3 pour over me as my constant companion:
Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. . . Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.
God is redeeming even my role here in the same mother’s ministry at my church, and in my role of serving women He brings into my life. I am learning to lean into Him now, seeking Him with a grateful heart, a new life. I no longer want to hide in the darkness. He has led me into His light, where I want to walk with Him.I hope and pray that you will want to come out of whatever darkness holds you in fear. I pray we all will help each other learn to walk in the light of his truth and love.
I know I want to live in the redemption of his love for me – even with all my messiness — telling a new story I am now excited to share.
I am so grateful to share my story with you.