Saturday, October 3, 2009

Beauty for Ashes

One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Isaiah 61:3: …to give them beauty for ashes. The entire verse describes how God can take something that is ugly, painful, troublesome and difficult and turn it into something truly wonderful. Not only can we exchange an ugly pile of ashes for something beautiful but we can also experience joy in place of mourning and praise instead of heaviness (liken that to depression).

I recently shared my testimony with someone that was a reminder of what God has done in my life. Over the years I have shared many different parts to my story, however, the very beginning…that moment in time where I experienced salvation; it has been a while since I shared that. There is something powerful about hearing the story of redemption and even recounting my own story was faith building for myself, let alone for the person who I told it to.

Now my past…that part of my life that was so messed up, a big pile of dirty, sooty ashes has become something very beautiful. Not that my life is trouble-free or that I have been perfected in character—far from it! The beauty is found in my relationship with the Lord. My life was a pile of ashes…one day I was living for myself, living for the next drink, the next party…the next day I was living for the Lord. Now that is what makes my life beautiful!

This seems as good a time as any to also share with you that beginning experience of salvation. I don’t have to tell you all that my past was…I can simply say it was just that, a pile of ashes. But then my next-door-neighbor was invited to church by her friend. She was afraid to go alone and asked if I wanted to come with. My attitude was, “What the heck? I might as well try it...” I figured I couldn’t lose out trying to find something else to fill the hole in my life. After all, I had tried virtually everything else. I was a new mom, my oldest son Daniel was only a year old and my marriage was on the brink of disaster. I figured it was worth a shot.

Now let me tell you that I have NO religious upbringing. I might have been to a church maybe two times and that was with my grandma. So I didn’t really have any expectations—which I think can be a good thing. But the first time I stepped through the doors of Oak Creek Assembly of God and experienced the joy of others around me, my guard went up. I didn’t see it as joy; instead I saw it as fakeness. All the smiles, hugs and shaking of the hands, it didn’t sit well with me. I don’t remember what the sermon was about because I spent the entire service wanting to disappear. I felt incredibly uncomfortable and was so relieved when it was finally over with. I declared to my friend, who lived next door—who by the way had been touched by God and was all teary-eyed—to never ask me to go again. I would never, I said, step through those doors again.

I remember going home and telling my husband about the service and how these people were brainwashed. I didn’t know it at the time but God was doing a work that was so deep within me, I couldn’t see it. So I stop right here in the story to ask you about someone in your life that maybe God is doing a work so deep inside them, that you can’t see. How many times do we get frustrated with loves ones, friends or co-workers because we don’t see anything coming of our prayers for them? We think they are a hopeless case. We don’t see how it’s possible for them to ever surrender their lives to Christ. Don’t give up! We only see what is happening on the outside…but God knows what is going on within.

Now granted, for many people who reject God, it usually takes time for them to realize their need for a Savior. Sometimes it can take years and that may sound very frustrating for you to hear. We don’t know what someone has to go through before they get to experience that surrendering of their lives to Him. But every moment in time is not a loss, it all counts for something and even the years I spent running, God was still doing a work. I can look back on the time without Him (not that He wasn’t there but I just didn’t see it) and see how He is able to use all that to help others.

So back to my story…I had absolutely no intentions of going back to that church. My friend, however, wanted to go back. I told her to have fun. Now it’s hard to explain how this happened but I will just tell you how it unfolded. The following Sunday, without any real thought being given to it—and by that, I mean, I don’t remember consciously making the decision to do this—I got up, got dressed, called my friend and asked if she was going to church. She said yes and I said I was coming with.

What happened? I can’t explain it. I can only say that the Holy Spirit was drawing me to that place. It wasn’t me. My flesh had no intentions of going. But something so deep within me knew it needed to go.

This time, when I walked through the doors of Oak Creek Assembly of God I didn’t see fakeness. I saw joy and it was something I wanted. I knew I didn’t have it. I wanted to be able to smile like that, to feel such joy within. As I sat through the sermon, I thought to myself, “Who in the world told this pastor about me?” My pastor, Pastor Brooks, preached a message that I was convinced was for me alone. I was also convinced he had somehow found out personal things about me.

About a month ago those same thoughts were conveyed to me when the foster kids’ mom came to church and after sitting through a sermon about the prodigal son, she asked, “Did you tell your pastor about me?” She was experiencing exactly what I had experienced--God speaking through a man. Sometimes it won’t be our words that make the difference. We can get wrapped up in thinking that we have to be the one. If you are trying to reach someone for Christ and your words haven’t done the “convincing” then maybe it’s time to release them into the hands of someone else. You can begin to pray that the Lord would bring someone into their life that can minister to them.

So when the sermon ended, the one thing that stood out to me was that I had been on a path of destruction—not just in the sense of living a party life but that I truly was on the path to destruction, in that my destination was not heaven, it was hell. The reality of that, the reality of the emptiness of my life hit me like a cannonball. I went to the altar and cried like I had never done before. It was a releasing of all the pain, all the hurts, all the wrongs in my life. It was an emptying of me, my past was being poured out and the Lord would begin to fill me with new things.

Some people experience a radical conversion. Mine was pretty radical. I lost all desire for that party life. I began to walk a new path and here I am now, 15 years later, living a beautiful life. The ash pile is gone. Now don’t get me wrong, there may be remnants of my past…little pieces of dust particles floating around that still need to be dealt with but the progress is going forth.

Because of my past, because of the pile of ashes that was once my life…I have a very deep desire to see very single woman released from that type of life. I absolutely hate seeing the devil have his mangy hands all over the life of a woman who is meant to experience so much more. God has recently put two women into my life that I am ministering to and even in the past week, a co-worker has begun to seek me out for answers to why my life is so different. You see, that is the key to living a life for Christ. You don’t want others around you to see nothing more than a pile of ashes…you want others to see beauty. If you have been saved, you have a beautiful story to tell. No two stories will be alike but they are all powerful and are meant to encourage and inspire others. My challenge is for you to get out there and share with others what God has done.

I also want to end this blog with this…please, please, please, allow yourself to see past the pile of ashes that so many women are living. It’s almost in our nature, as a woman, to size a woman up. Many women feel threatened or inclined to compete with other women. Sometimes it’s all about the outer beauty of a woman. Sometimes it’s the house she lives in, the type of job she has. We almost instinctively start comparing ourselves to other women and then judgment sets in.

I have a friend that a couple of years ago, I confessed to her how when she first started attending our church, I was very judgmental. I was appalled by her dress, her mannerisms and thought she had no place at that altar when she was looking and acting that way. I can bet that many of you reading this now have felt the same way. You have seen nothing but a pile of ashes. So in turn you chose to look away, to walk away. You didn’t see the opportunity that was before you.

If someone had told me back then that I would one day become friends with this woman, I would have laughed in their face. But God took a pile of ashes and created a beautiful woman of God. It’s too bad I missed out on seeing the transformation take place…but no more. I will not allow that opportunity to pass me by any longer. Now when I see a woman whose life is a pile of ashes, I see the potential beauty within.

It is time that we declare to others what God has in store for them: to console those who mourn in Zion, to give them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they may be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified. (Isaiah 61:3 NKJV)

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