For the LORD will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those
stronger than they.
The LORD says, “The people of Israel who survived death at the hands of
the enemy will find favor in the wilderness as they journey to find rest for
—JEREMIAH 31:2, The Net Bible
The first e-mail I received from my former stepfather ended with these words: “Every saint has a past; every sinner a future.” It was a winsome reminder that the God of the universe hears my prayers and longs to save my family members.
I did not learn about God when I was growing up, nor were his principles heralded in my home. My mother married my biological father before I was born, but they divorced soon after. They used to attend church together, but after the divorce, we didn’t continue the habit. Oddly, I never called my dad father; I called him by his first name.
My mother and I lived with my grandparents while she earned her teaching degree, a time I remember as happy and stable. I recall being reprimanded for riding my tricycle around the corner from Nana’s line of sight. I remember the intercom next to my crib where Nana’s voice would magically encourage me to go to sleep.
My mother later remarried. Her new husband was an angry mechanic she met in a Laundromat after I turned five. The only detail I remembered about the wedding was that it was held in our backyard, with guests sitting on Indian blankets.
Most wore the uniform of the day: tie-dyed shirts, ripped jeans, and long hair. This was during the early seventies when free love and happy drugs ruled. Protesters shouted angry words about a horrifying war in Vietnam and blocked he interstate highway. My mother and her second husband were caught up in this world—a world I unwittingly joined. They had parties where glazed-eyed hippies sat in circles passing a communal joint; sometimes they were so stoned, they’d pass the sweet-smelling, hand-rolled stick to me. Even then, God had seared a conscience into me—a gift I still thank him for. “No thanks,” I’d say and retreat to my bedroom where dolls and stuffed animals greeted me.
My toys were my friends. I had a particular affinity for stuffed animals that no one else wanted. Once, at my baby-sitter’s house, I spied a raggedy stuffed cat whose button eyes were gone, leaving circles of unfaded fur as reminders. The cat was forlorn and sad, shoved in a corner. “May I have this, please?” I asked my baby-sitter.
Hoping that perhaps I’d stop pestering her, she nodded yes. I held the kitty to my heart, sang it songs, and cleaned it as best I could. Sometimes I borrowed my dolls’ dresses and clothed the stuffed kitty. Somewhere in my five-year-old heart, I suffered when I saw suffering. I had an inner urge to nurture, perhaps because my mother at that point in her life found it difficult to nurture me. Even then, I longed to become a mother someday.
My stuffed animals and dolls provided hours of entertainment, but they couldn’t salve my loneliness. One day I asked my mother to play with me. She said, “No. Go out and find a friend.” So, as I often did when riding my tricycle at Nana’s house, I ventured up the block and around the corner. I saw a young girl playing in a glassed-in porch and walked up to the door and knocked. The girl’s mother answered and invited me in. Later my mother found me chattering with my newfound friend, Kimi, who soon became my best friend.
That foundational year of my life was a year I’ve had to revisit hundreds of times while holding tightly onto God’s hand. When each of my children, particularly Sophie and Julia, blew out five candles on their birthday cakes, I panicked. Somehow, seeing their small frames, their bubbling childlikeness, and their innocence transported me back to the year my small frame was violated, my childlikeness darkened.
My first stepfather, the angry mechanic, took apart greasy engines in our living room and yelled at me when I bothered him. That was also the year young thieves stole my tricycle. When I found it later, with the handlebars twisted upside down, one boy said, “It ain’t your trike. The handlebars are different. See?” The same boys stole my silver dollars when I sold lemonade on the sidewalk. They handed me a joint rolled with dried oregano leaves to give to my mother as a joke.
But none of that compared to the private hell I experienced nearly every day of my kindergarten year. I attended morning kindergarten. Usually people remember their kindergarten teacher’s name, but I don’t remember my teacher’s name. I can’t even tell you what she looked like. I can tell you I walked to the babysitter’s house every day after school, and older boys would come by and ask if I could play. I don’t remember their names, but I do remember that they had a stay-at-home mom and a father who was a Boy Scout leader. Every day these brothers, probably in the sixth and eighth grades, took me somewhere—usually ravines in a wooded park—and molested me. One of them once asked me, “Don’t you want to have babies someday?” Through stinging tears, I nodded. It had been a dream of mine to become a mommy—just a natural progression from my stuffed-animal nurturing. “Well, then,” he said, “this is what you have to do.”
The boys used vulgar language to describe their actions. I knew that what they were doing was wrong and that the word they used to describe their assaults was a dirty word. I was afraid to tell my baby-sitter what was going on, mainly because I was afraid I’d get my mouth washed out with soap for swearing. But finally, after too many visits to the forest, I told her in a whisper what they had been doing to me, bad words and all. She bent close, coffee breath polluting my nose, and wheezed, “Well, I’ll tell your mother. Don’t worry.”
Still, the brothers kept coming. Every day. Sometimes they’d get so bold that they’d take me to their home, into their bedroom, and have their way with me while their mom made chocolate-chip cookies for their Scout meetings. I knew I had to take charge, so every day after morning kindergarten I would feign sleep.
I’d eat a hasty lunch and lie down on the baby-sitter’s bed, squeezing my eyes shut when I heard the inevitable knock at the back door. “She’s still napping. I’ll send her out when she wakes up,” I’d hear the baby-sitter say. The last part of my kindergarten year, I napped a good four hours a day.
It wasn’t until much later, in the foothills of adolescence, that I learned the baby-sitter had never told my mother I was being molested. For years I thought my mom had full knowledge of the abuse and just allowed it to continue. With that misconception, I grew up feeling unprotected, unwanted, and unvalued.
My mother and my first stepfather divorced after I finished kindergarten. My mom then married a gentler man. Still, I battled fear—especially during parties in our home. As an only child, I had no one to commiserate with, other than my animals, an imaginary friend named DeeDee, a few dolls, and an occasional friend. At the beginning of the school year, when I walked home as a first grader, I ran into the house, locked the door, and called Nana—a ritual I performed until the sixth grade. Thankfully, that year my mom and stepdad eventually paid for me to go to day care after school, so I wouldn’t have to be alone.
Our home was vandalized that same year. When we arrived home I could smell something unusual, even before my stepfather turned the house key. “It smells like a swimming pool,” I said.
Inside, the furniture was topsy-turvy. Ketchup streaks lined the walls where framed photos had been ripped down, and the swimming pool smell came from bleach that had been poured down our heat registers. That night the smell of ketchup-bleach made my stomach churn, and I remember feeling alone and frightened. No matter how many blankets I piled on my bed, I shook most of the night.
Every other Sunday I would visit my biological father, who showed an interest in me and exposed me to art galleries, thrift stores, mountain trails, and a slew of artsy friends. He moved in and out of a string of relationships with young women. Once when I asked, horrified, about a bloodstain on his bed, he told me about sex. He seemed very comfortable with the promiscuous side of his life—a part of him that still perplexes me.
My father loved me, or at least he made me the center of his attention when I was around. He threw unusual birthday parties for me with oddly shaped cakes. He also encouraged me to draw and write. Perhaps he wanted to see if I would someday emulate him—he was an incredible black-and-white photographer and a writer.
After finishing his doctoral dissertation in English literature, he decided not to turn it in. Instead, he became a city bus driver, and I sometimes rode along with him on his route. Eccentricity defined my dad, and he assumed the persona of a creative madman, a tragic foreshadowing.
He married a young woman he met on his bus route, and a month before she was to give birth to their first child—my half sister—he died. I was ten years old.
I recall sitting in class that day when an announcement came over the school intercom: “Will Mary please come to the office right away?” Alarm tinged the secretary’s voice. As I walked down the outside hallway, I noticed the cement-block pattern of the school’s walls. Halfway to the office, I knew my father was dead.
In front of the school, my mother and I sat in our green hatchback. She said, “Your father is dead.”
Although I knew it was my biological father, I asked, “Which one?”
The following weeks and months blurred together. The man who loved me was dead. The man who took rolls and rolls of black-and-white photos of me would no longer snap another shot. A ten-year-old’s grief blanketed me. At night I’d cry. At school I had the meanest teacher of my elementary-school years. When I broke down, she told me, “I used to feel sorry for you, but it’s been a month now. You should be over it.”
I learned that to be acceptable to others, I had to hide my emotions. Again, I had to take charge of myself and create a facade of well-being. I essentially spent my entire childhood taking care of myself, trying to parent myself.
During junior high I felt, as most pimply, underweight girls do, as if I were trapped, living through an endless loop of Sixteen Candles. Awkward and gangly, I tried to fit in with the cool crowd. Mainly, though, I fell apart and ran to the counselor’s office several times a week. My mother’s third marriage was disintegrating, something that ripped at parts of my heart I couldn’t quite identify. The school counselor was a Christian. He listened to me and let me cry. He even gave me a get-out-of-class-free card—a special pass that allowed me to leave whenever I couldn’t keep the tears from spilling.
After my eighth-grade year, our extended family gathered at Nana’s for Father’s Day. I knew it would be the last time I would celebrate that day with my stepfather, because my parents’ divorce would soon be final. In the middle of my grandparents’ suburban living room, I cracked. Every emotion I had carefully bottled for the sake of my mother, who had a difficult time dealing with my emotions, poured out. My mother asked, “Why are you crying?”
Two years later I was weeping again—this time under an evergreen tree at a camp run by Young Life, a ministry for high-school students. A friend in ninth grade had invited me to attend the camp. I was fifteen, and inside I had a raging anger toward my mother, whom I blamed for divorcing my second stepfather. I hated her for driving him away, and I vowed that I would punish her by not meeting her new boyfriend.
But at camp, every time the leader spoke about Jesus, some of my hatred would melt away. My heart hammered in my chest as I heard of the Man who took time for rejected ones, who fed ordinary folks on grassy hills, who touched lepers, who riled the anger of self-righteous pontificators. Every part of me longed for Jesus in a way that only an orphan who longs for parents can.
I had prayed to God all my life. Even when my own father died, I prayed to God. But I didn’t know anything about Jesus other than the Christmas story: A baby had been born in a manger in a city called Bethlehem. Sometimes I saw Jesus as an adult hanging from a cross, but I had no idea why he was there. At Young Life Camp, the speaker told the biblical story of Jesus, simple and graphic, from manger to cross to resurrection. Finally I understood who Jesus was and what he had done for me. Unlike the adults in my life, Jesus had sacrificed himself for me. He laid down everything for me. He took on my hatred, my wayward thoughts, and my dark intentions and died for my sins so I could be set free from them.
That night, after the gospel permeated every cell in my skinny adolescent body, I choked out a prayer to Jesus. I rested against a knobby tree and marveled at the starry sky that peeked through the evergreen canopy. Up there in the heavens sat an eternal Father who would never leave me. That melancholy ache most girls feel when they’ve lost a father (or, in my case, three fathers) went from hot sadness to cool resignation. I now had a Father who loved me.
Eight years later—after finishing high school and college—I walked down a church aisle wearing white. My mother’s boyfriend, the man I had vowed to hate, walked me down the aisle, where I met my mother and my grandfather, who gave me away. Waiting for me was Patrick, my fiancé. In the middle of a storm the northwestern meteorologists called “the Arctic express,” we said our vows to love, honor, and cherish each other until death separated us.
The moment the ring circled my finger, I wanted to start having children. Within a year I was pregnant and battling horrific nausea. Three weeks later, just days before Thanksgiving, I was in the hospital having surgery for an ectopic pregnancy.
I’d never really yelled at God before. He was my Father, after all, and I knew he was not someone to yell at. But still, in the car on the way to the hospital, I screamed at him. I had believed for a long time that since my life had been difficult growing up, God owed me a perfect life now that I was an adult. I had already experienced enough pain and heartache. I could not trudge through any more.
God let me vent. Lightning didn’t strike me dead for shaking my fist at God. A calm sadness filled me as I realized I needed to give God my fierce desire to become a mommy. I had to walk whatever road he laid before me, even if it meant never realizing my dream of having children. The little girl who had sheltered damaged stuffed animals wanted a baby to cuddle. I’d wanted motherhood for as long as I could remember, since episodes of The Brady Bunch flickered on our black-and-white TV. Maybe I wanted to create what I never had. Maybe I just needed to give love to someone who was helpless. Maybe I didn’t feel my marriage was complete without children. Whatever the reason, I had to give it all to God.
And then Sophie, our eldest, became our own baby in a manger two years after Patrick and I said our vows. A Christmas Eve baby, Sophie was presented to us in a red stocking and a tiny Santa hat. When we took her home, we both stared at the ceiling of our bedroom in what can only be described as utter terror. What were we thinking? We don’t even know how to change diapers, let alone feed, bathe, and protect a baby. What if she breaks?
From Sophie’s first cry until today, when tears wet her cheeks from preteen disappointment, Patrick and I have been on a harrowing journey called pioneer parenting.
In many ways all of us are pioneer parents, no matter what our upbringing was like. We all have to unlearn things. We all are clueless when it comes to babies, whose instruction manuals are nonexistent and whose noises are coded in cries and burps and giggles.
The question that worried me most when Sophie happily invaded our lives was, Will she know I love her, or will her childhood reflect mine? Before our daughter was born, Patrick and I had scoured parenting books. But about one minute into parenthood, we both panicked when we realized that no set of tenets and techniques would help us. As we stared at the ceiling that night, we both realized we needed God’s help.
Since I hadn’t observed healthy parenting when I was growing up, I turned to books and mentors for advice. I observed other parents and took mental notes of everything they did. I tried to emulate those whose parenting style I admired. I highlighted passages in parenting books and copied bits and pieces into my journal. Still, I felt lost. Because Patrick had grown up in a stable home, I often asked him what his parents did.
The road has not been easy, nor has it been devoid of potholes. Tangled in the whole mess has been God’s desire for me to be healed from the emotional trauma of my past—a journey I am still walking today. He’s asked me to do the unthinkable: to forgive those who wronged me—another lesson I learn daily. He’s asked me to walk a path of humility, seeking forgiveness from my children whenever I yell or rant or demean. Parenthood has become the journey God has used to refine me, to take me beyond my limited strength, to bring me to him.
In this respect, it’s been a wonderful adventure. The difficulties pioneer parents face, if viewed redemptively, can be God’s means of sanctifying us. Because I am well aware of my frailty, I have the joyful opportunity to reach for his hand, hand that is stronger and more capable than mine. I’ve come to relish and appreciate the empowerment of 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, my life verse:
[God] has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (NASB)
Some people never understand the gift of knowing their own lack. Because I am weak, especially in terms of parenting, I have the opportunity to understand God’s strength. My weakness, then, becomes a stage for God to reveal his capabilities through me.
It is because of my upbringing that I can thank God. Only recently have I been able to truly thank God for the trials of my childhood. He used them to bring me to himself. Had I not had a father-shaped vacuum in my heart, I doubt I would have reached for God underneath that evergreen tree at Young Life Camp. Had I not felt emotionally abandoned, I would not have needed his comfort.
I echo the sentiment Paul expressed to the Christians in ancient Corinth:
Consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God. (1 Corinthians 1:26-29, NASB)
I was foolish, weak, and impoverished in soul. And yet God chose me. I imagine him looking down from heaven and saying, “See that one there? The girl with the snarled hair and the empty eyes? I am choosing her. I’m going to change her life in such a way that only I can get the glory.” In essence, God “Eliza-Doolittled” me. He plucked me from my desperate circumstances in order to change me for his glory. He chose to give me a husband whose love for me resembles his love. And he gave me children to teach me about his nurturing.
Maybe you’re in the same place. Maybe you feel foolish and weak. Maybe the thought of trying to parent your children immobilizes you. As a first-generation Christian, you may struggle to even know where to begin. If so, you’re in a great place. The premise of this book is not “how to do a bunch of stuff to become a perfect parent”; it’s “run to the Father and ask for his help in your weakness.” Perhaps you sing David’s song:
I waited patiently for the LORD;
And He inclined to me and heard my cry.
He brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay,
And He set my feet upon a rock making my footsteps firm.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God;
Many will see and fear
And will trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40:1-3, NASB)
Your past is your pit of destruction. It holds your heart in miry clay. But you no longer need to endure its grip on you. The key is to wait for the Lord to incline himself to you. By now you know you can’t pull yourself up by your proverbial bootstraps—that’s God’s job. He takes your past, your fears, and your demons.
He sets your muddy feet on a rock and walks with you on firm ground. Defeat will no longer be your melancholy song. Instead, you will sing praises as he teaches you to parent, as he parents your children through you in your weakness. That way, God will get the glory. And the end result is that “many will see and fear and will trust in the LORD.”
The e-mail read, “Every saint has a past; every sinner a future.” I received it just this week from my stepfather, the man who helped raise me from age six to fourteen. I hadn’t heard from him in decades. Then he contacted me on the eve of my writing of this book to let me know that he had committed his life to Jesus and was passionate about serving him. This man had allowed God to pluck him out of his own pit of destruction, out of his own miry clay.
For those of you who lament the kind of parents you had, for those who worry that God’s arm isn’t long enough to reach your extended family, take heart. Keep praying. Someday you might receive an e-mail or phone call proving just how long God’s arm is. He longs to lift people from deep pits. He did that for me. He also did it for my stepfather.
He’ll do the same for you and for those you love. Ask him, and reach up for his strong arm.