Monday, September 24, 2012

Everything Happens for a Reason

Editor's note: I wrote this post last week and had intended for it to be published last Friday. For some reason or another, I messed up the settings so it didn't post as scheduled. I only say this because later in the post I talk about something that happened on a Sunday, quoting it as something that happened "today." So, as you read this, please bare in mind that although the things I say happened "today" did not happen today, they did still happen and still ring true. 

Also, I am a little nervous as to how some of my friends and family will receive this post. It's all about a change in my life that makes my life quite different from the way that those who know me are used to. The only thing that I can say to the people who might view this powt negatively is this: I have always loved and respected you and I've done my best to show you that no matter what is going on. I can only hope that, no matter what you may think of this post, you will show me the same respect.

People say that things happen for a reason. I've always believed this to be true. It seems that no matter how bad things get, something good has almost always come from my struggles.

Obviously both Jason and I getting fired from Chili's was a big struggle for us. Honestly, even after almost a year, we're still struggling from it, but a lot of good has come from it. However, as it usually goes, in the wake of a struggle it's really hard to see a silver lining. At the time, I couldn't possibly conceive of any kind of prosperity to be gained from my husband and I losing employment. 

We worked our way into and out of a lot of different plans for how our life would progress. One plan was to take our income tax money and move to Tulsa in June. We had been planning to move there anyway, although it would have been a lot easier if I had gone into management with Chili's. For several reasons, that plan didn't work out. 

I ended up working as a server at Pizza Hut, but that too didn't work out. What did work out, however, was  and old friend coming in to Pizza Hut and telling me about a job at her family's Mexican restaurant. I began working there in April, and since then a lot of things have fallen into place in my life that I haven't had in a very long time. 

From the moment I heard about the job, something felt right for the first time since I worked at Chili's. My boss was going to be an old friend and a close friend of mine is part of the family that owns the restaurant and she also works there. When I started working there, I found out that there were several other people there that I know. 

One of those people is a woman named Rosie. I met Rosie in the 7th grade in our geography class. She was moderately popular - not one of the socially elite, but definitely not a social misfit like me. One of the things I remember most about Rosie from school is that she was always really nice to me, while most of the other kids in school were not. I didn't see a lot of her after 7th grade, but that was mostly because we ran with different crowds (obviously) and we didn't have any more classes together. It was really nice to get to see her again and get to work with her. 

At this time, it was the spring semester and I had a sociology class with another classmate of ours. She and I  had been tentatively planning a girls' night out that started with a Scentsy party and ended at the karaoke bar near my house, and I thought I would invite Rosie along. Rosie smiled at the invitation and told me that it sounded like fun. She said that she'd try to come to the Scentsy party if she wasn't working, but she wasn't too sure about going to the karaoke bar because she doesn't drink. I didn't think too much of it at the time, other than wondering why. I didn't think that she'd had an alcohol problem, and the only people that I really know who don't drink at all are recovering alcoholics.

As I continued working with Rosie, it became abundantly clear that she is a devout Christian. Now, I don't say this with any kind of judgment or negative connotation. At night when we were doing our closing duties cleaning the restaurant, a lot of times the hostess or other servers would stick around to talk to Rosie about their faith. They came to her for advice or a shoulder to cry on and she never once judged them. She spoke about her own faith with the kind of grace that I've only seen a few times in my life.

Seeing this made me more aware of what was going on around me. It seemed like everyone I worked with at one time or another was having a conversation about God and faith. These conversations weren't the kinds of religious conversations I was used to. It seemed like religious conversations where I was concerned were one of two kinds: condemnation or hypocrisy. These people were simply sharing their excitement for something they'd learned in church and their love of God.

It was around this same time that Gracie had begun to act out a little more than usual. As most of my friends know, Gracie has always been a pretty well behaved and mild mannered little girl, so when she started to have the attitude of a 13 year old girl, Jason and I became concerned. We'd never really had to deal with these kinds of problems, but one of Jason's suggestions, and I can't begin to tell you how surprised by this I was, was that we try taking Gracie to church. For those of you who don't know, Jason is an atheist - or an agnostic on the best of days. But he was raised in church and gained a lot of his moral center from his Sunday school lessons as a boy and he thought that maybe Gracie could gain something from attending church too.

After a few weeks of trying to take him up on his offer and being met with Jason not wanting to wake up to go, I finally concluded that if anyone was going to take Gracie to church it was going to be me.

Now, I guess I should give a little bit of a religious background where I'm concerned before moving on, so bear with me. Growing up, I went to a small variety of different churches, but never any place really regularly. I went to pre-school and kindergarten at First Assembly of God, and I rode the bus there for Sunday school from time to time in my first few years of grade school. My mother grew up in the Methodist church, so when she wanted to go to church, that's where we went. My dad grew up in the Baptist church, and although we never went as a family to a Baptist church, I had a lot of friends who went to Baptist churches in town and that seemed like a nice fit for a while. I'm even still relatively close friends with a girl that I met at Baptist church camp the summer before 5th grade.

The summer before 8th grade, my grandmother invited my friend Natalie and I to start attending the Wednesday night youth group at her church. Most of the other kids in the group were preppy, upper-middle to upper class, and definitely not of the same crowd that Natalie and I belonged to. The group was poorly managed and we spent the better part of 4 Wednesday nights being ridiculed rather than learning about God. Natalie and I decided that if that's what it looked like to be a Christian, we didn't want any part of it.

My entire 8th grade year and into the beginning of my 9th grade year, I was an "atheist." Knowing what I do now, I realize that I would probably have been better defined as an agnostic, but what good is rebellion if you're not completely against something? In that time, I ended up doing some research on Wicca (if you can consider buying some Wicca for teenagers-type book research) but didn't really find anything in it for me.

In 9th grade, a couple of girls in my creative writing class invited me to their youth group. I told them I didn't believe in God and they said (paraphrased), "That's cool. We didn't either, but this is the kind of place that welcomes that. You don't have to come, but the invitation stands." After a couple of weeks of invitations, I finally gave in and went. I never REALLY renounced my faith in God and was kind of curious to see if I could find the piece I felt like I was missing in my life.

When I walked in, there was worship music being played. I'd never heard music like this before; it wasn't the gospel music I was used to hearing at church, and it wasn't like the contemporary Christian music I'd heard in my friend's mom's cars. It was more like rock and the things they were singing were things I could relate to. Then the pastor started talking. (I don't think I've ever referred to Cass as a pastor until this point, and although that has no bearing on the story, it's totally something that I'm for some reason only just now noticing. Not to discredit him in any way - he was amazing. But I'll get there.) I don't remember anything about what was said other than the way it made me feel. I felt like Cass was talking directly to me about my own life. I heard a passion for God that I'd never known could exist and I wanted that. I wanted to learn how to achieve that. So I kept going. And I did find it.

...But, it got lost somewhere along the way. Admittedly, I think I know where bits and pieces of it have gone. It's mostly due to my own arrogance and concern for what other people would think of me. Jason and I got together when I was 17. I'd only been going to the youth group for about 18 months, and although I continued going after we started dating, I eventually wanted to spend that time with him instead. Even though I know now that Jason would have respected me and wouldn't have thought any less of me for going to church, the fact that he was an atheist was an issue for me because I just didn't know better. I still believed, but I kept it to myself.

Like every other human, I'm adaptable. If I'm forced to listen to a certain kind of music for so long, eventually I'm going to start tapping my toes or humming along. In that same way, after hiding my faith for so long, it was like it wasn't there. In times of trouble, I've found myself starting to pray ("I don't know if you're out there God, but if you are...") and then stopping midway through ("...whatever. Like this is going to matter anyway.") But there's been a void, and I've felt it this whole time. When I would get sad, I would find myself asking God if He was there. I'm sure there have been signs here and there, but even though I was asking for them, I wasn't ever really looking. The thought was fleeting and since the answer was never immediate, I just figured it wasn't there.

So. I had decided that I was going to take Gracie to church with me. A couple of years ago, I was working with a guy named Tim at Chili's. It seemed like every day we worked together, we'd end up rolling silverware at the same time, so we'd end up talking. Tim is a pretty religious guy, but like the girls in my creative writing class, he never forced his religion on me. He'd ask me questions about why I didn't really believe or what I thought about this belief or that, and he'd give his input, but it was never anything judgmental. He invited me to church and wasn't offended when I had declined.

One of the really cool things about working at this new job was that Tim was also working there. The morning that I had decided to take Gracie to church, we were actually intending to go with my friends Kenny and Julie (Julie being the friend I work with who is also in the family that owns the restaurant). But I was running late. I called Kenny to let him know and he informed me that Julie wasn't feeling well and they hadn't gotten the boys up, so they weren't going. Had I called when I had first woken up like I intended and then found out that they weren't going, I would have crawled back in bed and said, "Screw it." But I was already almost ready. I didn't really want to go to this new church by myself though, but then I remembered Tim's open invitation, and how convenient it was that the service at his church started 30 minutes later than the one I was intending to go to!

As soon as Gracie and I walked into the First Assembly of God Church, we were greeted by an elderly man. He said he'd never seen us there before and wondered if we were visiting. I told him that it was my first time coming in a very long time and he handed me a welcome bag and helped me find the children's church. When I walked into the main church I was greeted by a few other people. They knew by the bag that it was my first time coming and were very welcoming. Among these people was a woman named April, who is the older sister of one of my best friends from 8th grade. She invited me to sit with her, which was really nice, because as it turned out, Tim was in the worship band, so I'd have been sitting alone anyway.

The worship music was great. It was just like the music I'd heard at the youth group years before and each one of the songs touched me. The only song I remember today was Amazing Grace - which is a song I've always loved, even when I was an "atheist." During the service, again, it felt like the pastor was talking directly to me. During one part of the service, he talked about a passage that states that you should seek the prayers of wise men because they are powerful. He then asked if anyone in the congregation needed agreement in prayer about something. Reluctantly, I raised my hand. I guess I assumed that he would scan the room, take note of those holding their hands up, and pray for them later but instead he called to the rest of the congregation to pray right then for those people. I felt a hand lightly placed on my shoulder, then one on my arm. April stood in front of me, and although there were several people around me praying, she was the only one praying out loud - and only loud enough that I could hear her. In her prayer, she asked God for all of the things I had been asking, and spoke the answers I had been seeking. Word for word, she answered the exact questions I had in my heart and that I've silently and secretly been asking for years. I felt a kind of wholeness that I'd been missing for a long time and wound up crying and silently thanking God for showing Himself to me.

At the end of the service, several people I knew came to talk to me. They all asked how I enjoyed the service and I told them that I had loved it. They all said, "Wait until next week! This week's service was different than it usually is. It was really good, but you're going to love it when you come back and see what it's like normally." It felt like God had specifically designed that week's service just for me.

Since then, I've begun going to a Sunday night Bible study at my friend and co-worker Nancy's house. We watch a television evangelist named Joseph Prince, and I have learned so much about the Bible that I never would have picked up in reading it on my own. He talks a lot about how the Old Testament is full of prophesies of Jesus, and the coincidences that are there are just so uncanny that I can't help but feel my faith reaffirmed when I watch.

I'm seeing little coincidences everywhere and feeling things fall into place more than I ever have. I feel more healthy and alive, and although I know a lot of my friends will think I'm crazy for saying this, I am absolutely in love with God and Jesus Christ!

I realize that there is a lot of hypocrisy in my life and I am working to address the issues that I can. I went to Tulsa over the weekend to visit my mom and this morning attended GUTS church. The message there today was that we should be aggressive about accelerating the correction of problems in our lives, in forgiveness, in attitude change, in raising the bar in our life, and in achieving God's prosperity and peace. I learned that 82% of people who don't go to church said they'd go if they were just invited, but that only 2% of people who go to church actually extend invitations.

Today, I am raising the bar and being relentless in my walk with God. I invite anyone and everyone who is local to join me this Sunday at 10:30 am at the First Assembly of God Church, and to everyone else I say this: If you feel a void in your life and you can't explain, don't wait for an invitation. Go check out a church, any church, and hopefully we can all begin to raise the bar in our lives. I feel like everything that has happened in the past year has happened for a reason, that I have been lead to a place where I could find God and His place in my life. If you are reading this, maybe there's a reason. Don't wait for it to come to you - go find it!