Good Monday morning.
It was a busy weekend here in my hometown. I spent a lot of time on my front deck, listening to music and reading on my Kindle. My dog, Rosie, loves it out there even though I keep her on a leash. When she was a puppy, she liked to run, and we live on a busy road, so we’ve always taken her out on a leash.
There is a belief that the Bible is like that leash. That it binds us to a code of rules that restrict our freedom. That it takes all the fun out of life.
The opposite is true for me. I don’t look at God’s Word as a leash of rigid rules meant to restrict my freedom. The Bible is a guideline for me to live a life that is free from the tangle of relationships and addiction that could negatively impact my health and wellbeing.I became a Christian at the age of ten, and continued on the path of faith through high school, college, and young adulthood. Now in my mid-fifties, I’m still living by the faith and moral principles that I’ve believed in for most of my life.
I’m not perfect, by any means, and my life is not without temptations. But by the grace of God, I’ve never strayed far from my faith. I willingly follow God and allow His presence to guide me. By staying close to Him and the guidelines the Bible sets forth, I’ve stayed free from unhealthy relationships or addictions.
When our neighbor stopped by yesterday and I had the door open, Rosie went out on her own. She didn’t run off, but stayed close to the deck, even without the leash. She willingly came back when I called.When I have stepped off the path of faith, God has always gently called me back. I’ve never been so far away that I couldn’t find my way back to Him.
Today my blog post is a story from a pastor about a young woman who began her walk with God as a teenager with a heart for God, only to lose her way. As the pastor shared the story, he talked about God’s purpose for our lives. This ties in with last week’s post, For Such a Time as This.
“When I was a teenager, I had such a heart for God,” said the woman sitting at the table across from me in her parents’ kitchen.
Her hair was a long, shaggy mass of three colors. A hair treatment gone awry gave her an orangish cast to the ash-blond color. Then it appeared she had tried to fix it with highlights. Her makeup was thick, too heavy for her thin face. She appeared harsh and older than her thirty-three years. She was too thin, perhaps from the addiction to cigarettes that kept one lit in her hands the entire time we sat and talked, one after another. It was most likely from the haphazard way she confessed to eating. Sometimes, she said, she would go two or three days with nothing more than a few drinks and cigarettes.
“What do you mean, you had a heart for God?” I asked.
Tears formed in her eyes as she explained, “I worshipped Him. I thought being a Christian was everything in life. All I needed was Jesus and my faith in Him.”
“And you found that it wasn’t true?” I asked. My voice was gentle. She seemed so fragile. I didn’t want to upset the course of her thoughts.
“No, exactly the opposite.”
Her words threw me a curve. “If you found out it was the opposite, then why didn’t you continue to worship God?”
She took a few puffs on her cigarettes, then with shaky fingers she shoved it into the ashtray and quenched the flame. “I found out too late,” she admitted, hanging her head into her hands.
“It isn’t too late,” I assured her with all of the conviction that my years in the ministry had given me. “It’s never too late to make things right with God.”
She laughed, a harsh, brittle sound that was pitiful to my ears. “I can never make things right. I’ve made poor relationship choices. I’m an alcoholic, and when I can get enough money, I go out and blow it on drugs. I wouldn’t even be here today if it wasn’t for my mother. I always come home to her when I mess up. Only now she’s fighting this cancer.”
“Your mother has faith that if she doesn’t survive the cancer, she will be in heaven, with the Lord,” I reminded her carefully. Her mother was a dear saint whose other two children were thriving members of their church communities, in different cities. This child, the wayward one, had caused heartache for her parents since her late teens, when she walked away from the Lord and went down the road that had brought her to this place. “She would rest easier knowing that you have returned to the faith of your youth.”
She shrugged, and her eyes met mine with her own dulled by years of pain and heartache. “I know. That’s why she called you.”
How could I forget the desperate call at three a.m. from her mother who had found her drunken and half-clothed on her doorstep, her face black-and-blue with bruises from her current boyfriend. I agreed to come, since the chemo treatments her mother was taking gave her no strength to deal with a crisis. The young woman’s father had gone with the police officer to pick up the children from a neighbor’s apartment. We were waiting for them to come home. The mother had gone into her bedroom to rest and, I suspect, pray.
I refilled her coffee cup and handed it to her, and she drank it deeply, as though it were something much stronger and more fortifying.
Where does a young person go so wrong? I asked myself as I sat in the quiet, warm kitchen, praying in my heart for her salvation and safety.
She couldn’t read my thoughts, but it almost felt that she had. “If I had only chosen a different set of friends,” she lamented, leaning back in her chair. “I loved worshipping the Lord, but I also liked living on the edge and reaching out to the ones I thought needed it the most.”
I nodded. I had met many Christians who started out trying to reach their friends for Christ, only to become involved in the sins that they were trying to save them from.
“I went to a few parties. I stayed away from the drinking and drugs, at first,” she admitted. “Then after a while, it was easy to take a few sips of alcohol or try the drugs. I thought it would help me fit in better, make me seem ‘cooler’ so they could accept what I had to witness to them about. Only it did not work out that way.”
“It seldom does,” I said softly, hoping she would not take offense.
She was too weary to become angry. “I always wondered what it would have been like, my life, if I had not fallen in love. It seemed like he would change at first, become a Christian. He went to church with me those first few months. Then we started living together, and he started drinking more. And I started to go to church alone. When I got pregnant, we got married, but it made him even worse. He was angry all the time. He drank more, and I went to church less. Then I stopped going altogether because the guilt consumed me.”
She was lost in thought and we fell silent. We heard the door open, and her father came in with her three children. The first one, who had been the reason for her first marriage, was tall and lean, a young man with a sullen expression and slouched shoulders. He had lived with the brutal reality of alcohol, drugs and abuse. At fifteen, I worried that the influence of his father, and the string of boyfriends who followed the divorce, would cause him to become an angry, abusive boyfriend or husband.
The middle child looked like her mother. She was twelve. Tall and lanky, she had a devil-may-care attitude and a flippant expression, but her eyes were dark and fearful. She was not going to let the world know that she lived in fear for her mother’s, and probably her own, safety.
The third child was a preschooler. She had thick brown hair tied in a fluffy ponytail. She was already showing signs of the problems caused by fetal alcohol syndrome, her grandmother had said.
Of the three, the little one was the only one who came forward when the mother held out her arms, the only one who received a trembling hug. The others hung back. After an awkward moment, the grandfather announced that it was bedtime and led them away. The girls would stay in the spare bedroom, the teenager would occupy the sofa. The young woman would have her old room which held so many memories of her innocence, before her life went awry.
I’d like to say that the lost soul made a commitment to Christ that night and turned her life around for the better. But that was not the case.
She continued to move in and out of abusive relationships and battled alcoholism for the next six years of her life. Then she died of a combination of drugs and alcohol. Her legacy was a twenty-one-year-old son who was addicted to drugs, an eighteen-year-old daughter who was pregnant and in an abusive relationship, and the youngest, a cherub with a learning disability, still in elementary school.
The grandmother recovered from cancer, and she and the grandfather were raising the youngest child and opened their home and hearts to all of their grandchildren.
Though I’ve moved on to another pastorate, I never forgot the words of the young woman who spoke with such pain that night. “I had such a heart for God.”
The heartbeat of my ministry extended from winning lost souls to finding ways to keep the souls that were won from falling into sin. Discipleship, prayer and Bible study, fellowship, communion, all work together to keep a new Christian from falling back into their past sins.
Unfortunately, it is still not enough sometimes. I have seen other young women and men who felt that they needed to conform to the world around them in order to fit in. Although their intentions may have been to reach their friends, they fell into temptations and sin. Sometimes, they are unable to escape that lifestyle. And even if they do, they wear emotional and sometimes physical scars that come from their painful struggles.
Time and again, I remind young people, “God has a plan for your life. Submit your life and your will to God, and He will guide you into that special purpose. It will be all that you ever hoped for, and more. Just hold onto your faith, and look neither to the right nor the left. Walk in fellowship with God. Make Jesus your best friend.”
We lost our young friend to the world and the sin that consumed her. Contrary to her words, it is never too late to go back to God. He welcomes each lost soul with open arms and a loving heart.