My Story, Part One, The Early Years

This is my story – beginning from my earliest memories as best I can recall.  All names and places have been changed except mine.”

CHAPTER ONE

 “Of all the tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive . . . those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.” C.S. Lewis

One of my earliest memories is of my mother and my grandmother standing in the middle of the kitchen in the home where I grew up with their arms wrapped around each other . . . weeping. My oldest brother, Joe, walked into the room and stood next to me. “Do you want a cookie?” he asked.

I looked up at him and said, “Why are Mommy and Grandma crying?”

Joe picked me up and sat me on the edge of a table that was filled with food. He looked straight into my little face and said, “Daddy isn’t coming home anymore. Daddy’s gone to heaven to be with God.”

And all my little three-year-old mind could figure out was that I must have been a very bad girl for God to take my daddy away.

I always knew there was a God.

I always knew that I wasn’t good enough for Him.

I always knew abandonment.

I always tried so hard to be good.

It was an impossible task.

Third grade was a memorable year for me. It was the year we moved into the new elementary school. It was the year I had the meanest teacher in the school district – aptly named Mrs. Switch. It was the year I had my tonsils removed and subsequently had to go to speech therapy to relearn how to talk. And, it was the year my best friend heard me say that I had a step-father . . . “I didn’t know you were one of those girls!” she declared.

After that, we weren’t quite best friends anymore.

Growing up as “one of those  girls,” I learned very early that I wore an invisible scarlet letter and that step-fathers are not daddies. This was a revelation brought to me by my sister. I had been calling him “Daddy” ever since my mother had told me that he was my new “Daddy.” But my sister soon set me straight. “He is NOT our daddy and you are never to call him that!”

My big sister was a huge influence in my 6-year-old world, so from then on, I called my step-father “Rob.”

No one seemed to care why I had a step-father – but it did matter that my mother wasn’t from our community, that we didn’t go to church, and that my mom wasn’t Dutch. My father had been Dutch, but he was gone and I had the dreaded step-father instead. It didn’t take me long to figure out that value was found in your last name, where you lived, how much money you made, what you wore, and who your friends were. And if your family didn’t go to church, you were a heathen – definitely a lesser-than.

I had nothing which would signify value – in fact, having a step-father put my value factor in the negative. Of course, it didn’t help that I was fat and ugly, with frizzy hair and a gap between my two front teeth. God seemed to take pleasure in making me miserable – the “religious” neighbor kids were quick to point out all of the things that were wrong with me, my siblings, as well as my parents. They were quick to let me know that whatever they thought of me, this was certainly what God thought of me – even though He was the one who made me that way and put me in that situation. Surely God was punitive toward this fat, ugly, frizzy-haired girl with a step-father and a family that didn’t go to church. It certainly seemed that God had abandoned me.

Perhaps it was in seeing and experiencing so much unfairness that I developed such a heightened sense of justice. Learning that people at every level – children, adults, parents, teachers, “Christians” – judge people based on their last name, income, neighborhood, social status, etc., I railed against this attitude with every fiber of my being.

My first recollection of holding people accountable came in the third grade.  We would always trade papers after taking daily tests on multiplication tables.  The two girls in front of me would always trade papers and then change each others answers in order to get perfect scores every day.  One day, I pointed out what they were doing and the teacher looked at those two girls and then looked at me.  “These girls would never do such a thing!” she declared.  Of course they wouldn’t.  They were from well-to-do families and went to the beauty parlor for their hair cuts and wore store-bought clothes.  How could I ever make such an accusation against such fine, upstanding girls?

As I got older and into junior and senior high school, I discovered that I fell into the crack between the “haves” and the “have nots.” I was definitely a “have not” by most folks standards, but no one could deny my intelligence or talent. With excellent grades and as one of the most celebrated musicians in my school, I became marginally acceptable to the “haves” and was always welcomed by the “have nots,” but never fully embraced by either.

CHAPTER TWO

 Going off to college was a momentous time in my life.

I had not planned to go. My parents refused to support me from the day I turned 18 at the beginning of my senior year in high school. I was paying rent that entire year and they made it clear that they certainly were not going to help in any way with college expenses. They had helped my sister through college a few years before, and then she had gone to work in a factory making more money than she could have ever made with her teaching degree. Why should I waste my time going to college when I could go to work and be that much further ahead?

Then came Tom.

Tom was a student teacher in our band program that spring.  When he asked me about going to college, I told him it was impossible.  But Tom was all about making miracles and so one day, he loaded me up in his car and took me to Missouri, to audition for the music faculty at the university.  He explained to me that they had already awarded all of the music scholarships for that year, but he had convinced them to hear me play anyway.

After playing for a panel of professors, Tom dragged me through a bunch of offices to meet several deans and the college president.  I’m not sure how he did it, but by the end of the day, I went home with three scholarships and faced a very unhappy set of parents.

That fall, my parents refused to even help me move to school.  Instead, my grandfather drove me there, helped me unload my gear, and bid me the best of luck.  I do think he was proud to have another grandchild go to college.  My parents never visited me at school until my senior recital which my sister insisted that they had to attend.  Their second visit was for my graduation.  Each time, they arrived shortly before the event started, and stayed for less than an hour afterward.  I was an inconvenience; an obligation, at best.

When I arrived at college, my roommate was a girl named Leslie.  I’m not sure why the powers-that-be decided we should room together, because Leslie wanted a roommate who was Lutheran and I just wanted a four-person room that I could better afford.  So, here we found ourselves, two strangers with a whole new world ahead of us.

It was at college that I learned that there are places in this world where last name, social status, income, material wealth, neighborhood, etc. don’t really matter.  I found myself in a world where people respected me and fully embraced me just because I existed.  When they discovered that I was also somewhat musically talented, I became sought-after.  But more on that later.

I quickly learned that Leslie was one of those irritating people who had a hard time taking “no” for an answer.  Immediately upon arriving at school, Leslie went in search of the local Lutheran campus ministry – which happened to be just a block or so from our dorm.  She quickly got involved and started inviting me to go to activities with her.  For nearly an entire semester, I was able to fend her off with excuses of needing to study, practice, rehearsals, etc.  Then one day, I had a brilliant idea.  If I just gave Leslie what she wanted one time she would quit asking!  So I agreed to go to their 10 PM evening devotional time.

It was there, at the Lutheran Campus Ministry, that I discovered a world of warmth, mystery, music, and mahem.  These “religious” students were so accepting, so funny, so raucous!  And so weird.  I had a good time meeting them, but didn’t plan to go back.  Surely Leslie was satisfied.

Or not.

As it turned out, my agreeing to go only caused Leslie to redouble her efforts to make me a “regular” at “the House.”  But, I fended her off for the rest of that semester.  It was when we returned to campus the weekend before the beginning of second semester classes, that Leslie invited me to a retreat at the church.  Well, there I was – stuck.  I had no classes, no homework, no rehearsals – no excuses.  So I went.

It was at that retreat that I learned that everything I had ever thought about God was true:  that I didn’t measure up and that I never would.  But I also heard something that I had never heard before – that I didn’t have to.  That God truly did love me through, and in spite of, and no matter what, and so much so that He had sent Jesus to die for me.

And so it was that on the night of January 19, 1979, I sat in the dark and quiet of the sanctuary of the local Lutheran Church, gazing at the Christ candle glowing on the communion table – and surrendered to Jesus.

I had no idea at the time, but this Lutheran church was not the “typical” Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.  In 1979, they were holding monthly “contemporary” worship services which were student led.  Sunday night services were called “Prayer and Praise” services and this was where I first encountered the mystical presence and power of the Holy Spirit.  These “charismatic” meetings were filled with manifestations – tongues, healing, prophecy, spiritual warfare.  Yet, the pastor and leadership were so very careful to temper the ministry, all things being done reverently and in order.  Clearly, those of us with a longing to have an intimate relationship with the triune God were no more spiritual or “better” than those who were “traditional” in their faith walk.  God was simply calling to us and manifesting within us in a different way.  I was “baptized in the Holy Spirit” in April of 1979.

CHAPTER THREE

Life at college was almost magical. I had friends, both Christian and non-Christian. I was part of two communities – the Christian community, and the college/music community – and both treated me with acceptance and dignity and respect – something I had never experienced before to this level.

As a musician, I quickly became a music leader in the Lutheran campus ministry and, as time went on, I was asked to lead music for several other campus ministries, as well.  As a music major, my talent garnered me coveted invitations to perform in the most prestigious venues the campus had to offer, and to my surprise, I was elected president of the local chapter of the professional women’s music fraternity on campus.  Professors, department chairs, ministers, the local Newman Center priest, even the college president, met with me on various occasions to ask for my input.  I became accustomed to being treated as a valuable, respected, sought-after leader in the campus community.

One day, a graduate student asked me, “What brought you to this university?”

Before even thinking about it, I replied, “God.”

It was as though all of my childhood thoughts about God had been wiped away.  No longer did I believe that He had abandoned me, made me ugly, fat, and fatherless.  I believed that all things had worked together for good and that it was through His providence that I had been brought to this place – solely because God brought me there to meet and learn to know Jesus.

It was also during this time that I heard an unmistakable call from God to serve Him through the church.  I didn’t know how this would play out, but I was willing to make myself available to Him in whatever way He led me.  I took for my life verse Luke 1:38:  “Behold the maidservant of the Lord.”

My first paying job in a church came during my college years.  The Lutheran Church where I had been saved hired me to be the pastor’s secretary.  It was then that I learned that people are always tugging on the pastor’s sleeve – especially at the end of Sunday services – and I determined that I would never be a “sleeve-tugger.”  I also learned how important it is to shred paper.  Pastors deal with all kinds of confidential information and the pastor I worked for was adamant that letters, cards, notes, documents, etc., that might be at all negative toward anyone was to be destroyed.  This pastor was a kind, gentle soul and no keeper of records of wrongs.

Life after college started out grand, as well.  I landed a teaching job in a small town in Missouri, and was able to stay in close contact with my college church home.  The next year, I took a job in an Iowa school district in Western Iowa.  It was during my first year there that I first began to realize that the church in my college town was very different from other Missouri Synod Lutheran Churches.  At the University, we were very contemporary for the time.  We were also very ecumenical – being heavily involved in an association of campus ministries that participated in many activities together.  To hear preaching from the pulpit that denigrated other churches in the community was a knife to my heart.  I had friends who were Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, and Baptists and who were devoted to God.  Being told that I could not so much as pray with anyone outside of the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church was inconceivable.

I spoke with my college pastor who advised me to leave the Missouri Synod and go where God called me.  I spent that year “church hopping” and then, in developing my relationship with my future husband, began attending a small Christian Church with him.  He was from a Reformed background and though I had grown up in a very Dutch community, I didn’t really know what that meant other than that they were Christians.  Since there were no Reformed Churches in our area, he had been attending this local Christian Church whose pastor had befriended him.

We were probably much too smitten with one another to worry too much about what church we attended those first few years.  Thus far, my experience had been that, outside of my own neighborhood back home, and that Missouri Synod Lutheran Church in western Iowa, Christians were very accepting, embracing, and loving.

But that’s the thing with magic.  It isn’t real.

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Comments
  1. Why do I feel something dreadful is about to happen next?

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