Vices vs. Verses: A Testimony

There has been a lot of discussion in my church lately on the importance of personal testimony and how individual stories can impact the world. Giving testimony on one’s faith is empowering and gives honor and glory to God because we are relaying the story of how He saved us. Peonies ‘n Mint, though loosely based around random discussion on what Life brings to the table, has grown to include more and more discussions on faith and belief as well. I do not usually dive into topics that may cause conflict, as I’m sure anything centering around religion may, but when it comes to my faith, I’m going to choose not to be afraid and go there…

I was blessed to have parents who felt the importance to have me grow up in the Church. I was baptized two weeks after my birth into the Lutheran faith and attended church regularly every week following. I began school in a Lutheran day-preschool at the early age of four. From there on I was given Bible lessons every day up through senior year in high school. I had to memorize Bible verses on a daily basis, I attended chapel services at least three days a week, and I was taught the stories of the Bible as an academic course. To say I knew the Bible like the back of my hand is an understatement…

Having religion as such a central part of one’s education should be a wonderful thing. However, I’ve come to believe that growing up in such a fashion leads to two very different types of people: the one who centers all thinking on his or her faith OR the one who takes advantage of that education and rebels. I am ashamed to say that for a long time I fell into the latter category.

Upon entering my higher education years, I left daily catechism to begin studying in a public university. In a better world, I would have matured throughout my college years into a steadfast and faithful woman of God. I should have taken the time to read the Bible on my own, revisiting familiar passages in the Word. I should have pushed myself to dive into devotions and actively allowed prayer into my life. I should have searched and joined Bible Study groups on campus to share in fellowship with my fellow believers. Instead, I allowed my past knowledge to be enough and left my faith on the back burner.

It isn’t surprising, then, that when I was faced with my first real trial in Life that I turned my back on God. I experienced the first true pain in the twisting shadows of heartbreak. I should have clung to God and His encouraging words such as 2 Corinthians 12v9: But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Rather, I blamed God and played the victim saying He had turned His back on me.

To make matters worse, I not only closed myself to God, but I opened myself to many vices of the world. I was no longer Ashley, but some foreign wraith of the girl who once prided herself on reciting Bible verses in front of her church congregation. I began to drink heavily. I was well known at many local bars, finding myself on first-name basis with barkeeps all over the county. It was rare for me not to close down a bar on any given Friday or Saturday. I found any and all worth in the compliments I received from men I met at those bars. I tried every unhealthy diet in the book because I was solely focused on looking and acting the part of a good bar-fly. I began to associate with people of the same ambition. I swore, I lied, and I didn’t give a damn about my reputation.

Acting in this manner led me to be an extremely lonely individual. Feeling lousy, depressed, and of no self-worth, I jumped at the first opportunity granted me at a real relationship. Enter Army. I blamed all my hardships on life on that starting factor: my breakup with X. So, naturally, I believed beginning a new romance would provide me with the self-worth necessary to make me happy.

The one positive thing to come from this stage in my life is that I became an extrovert. When you don’t care what people think, you’re much more prone to talking to strangers and being more social. With an increased bravado, I agreed to a blind date where I met Army for the first time. In retrospect, there wasn’t much to our initial attraction past looks. I suppose he intrigued me because we seemed to have common lifestyles: we both liked to drink, we both liked to workout, and we were both lonely.

Those similarities worked for a while, until they didn’t.

God brought me to my senses in a very clear and pungent way. (Literally.) One day in early summer, Army and I attended a festival at a local winery. It was typical that our time together centered around alcohol, and the day started off well enough. We pitched lawn chairs in the winery’s vineyards facing their outdoor stage where several bands were set to play throughout the day and we headed to grab growlers of our favorite beverages. In a streak of pure brilliance on my part, I had stayed up late the night before, ran a 5k race that morning, and opted out of eating any food whatsoever prior to the festivities. So the 64 ounces of sangria was all I had in my system. Things only continued to go downhill from there and a series of very unfortunate events (points of which I am still too ashamed to divulge in public) transpired. Ultimately, the afternoon concluded with Army screaming obscenities at me while I bawled in front of over 500 people. It was, and remains to be, the single most embarrassing moment of my life.

Though Army apologized profusely the days following this horrendous event, things never felt the same after that festival. We became distant from one another. Looking back, its clear that was the beginning to our end.

It was also, blessedly, the start to my new life though.

It’s funny how deep and impacting embarrassment can strike you. I had dealt with other situations with Army, such as getting kicked out of establishments due to his temper and witnessing him want get into fights for as simple of a reason as someone not moving forward in line at a grocery check out… But nothing struck me quite like that festival. I realized that I was associated to such anger, and that didn’t sit right with me. I didn’t want to be the type of person who belittled strangers, who allowed others’ impertinence, who was arrogant and only cared about her own well-being. I no longer didn’t care…

With the feeling of utter shame, I began to reflect on my actions, and lack of action. I looked in the mirror and, though I no longer saw a crying, sniveling little girl, I still didn’t like my reflection. In the mirror I saw a girl who prided herself on her vices. She was vain. She was mean. She lied and swore and looked down on people because she somehow thought she was better than them. And something — buried deep, deep inside me — broke.

I knew I had to change.

Change, however, does not come all at once. Change is a process. I used to think my life change began when Army and I broke up, but now I can see it actually began at that wine festival. That was the moment I truly saw the kind of person I was becoming, and I was disgusted. I slowly began to drink less. While still with Army, I began to opt out of the bar scene, and instead chose to go to the gym or stay home. When he’d suggest going out, I’d order water to his beer. Once we broke up, I decided I wanted to take a hiatus from the dating scene. I no longer wanted to find my worth in a man’s perception. I wanted to find worth in myself. I worked out consistently, I created tighter friend circles, and I started to research new hobbies and activities available in my community. And somewhere along those lines that deeply buried broken girl pieced herself into a completely new woman.

Yet, even after I had grown past my vices, something was still missing from my life. Try as I might, I couldn’t keep pretending I didn’t know what that something was either: a strong connection to God. My faith had truly not been touched since high school. And even though I was molding myself into a new person, there was no lasting mortar to make sure I wouldn’t come crashing down again in the future.

I’m not a strong prayer. I feel ashamed to say that because I’ve had better instruction on how to talk to God than most people do throughout their lives. But, I’m just not. I forget constantly to thank God for His guidance, for His blessings, for His continued work in my life. Nonetheless, God still heard me that summer day when I was online browsing for something new to enter my life. At the time, I didn’t even know exactly what I needed, but He sure did!

I found House while looking for a Bible study group at First Church. Out of the blue, a Facebook friend had posted that she would be starting a Bible Study at the church come September. The topic she posted about sounded interesting, and since I was wanting to try new things, I investigated a bit further. I’m not sure if I actually even made it to the page with the Bible Study topics… all I remember is clicking a button pertaining to a “20 Somethings Group”. I jotted down the meeting location and time and made a mental note to try to join the group the following week.

It took me three weeks to find the House group. House is a Bible study group for 20 and 30-year-olds which meets at a local beach during the summer months. My first two attempts, the group had been holding fellowship in the actual lake, swimming and playing games and whatnot. So I spent the first two weeks walking up to random groups on the beach, asking if they were the House group, and receiving confused looks.

By the third week, I had pretty much given up, thinking the group either wasn’t considerate of newcomers or the group simply had no interest and didn’t truly meet! So there I was, on that fateful August evening, sitting at my parents’ house, staring into the void when my mom asks, “Why aren’t you going to that Bible study? I thought you were going to give it one last shot?” Since I honestly had nothing else to do, I shrugged and drove over to the beach. Luckily, my fears weren’t validated: House had regrouped on the beach and I was finally able to find them! And, the rest is history…

With every passing week at House, my faith grew a little bit more. Not only was I participating in studying the Bible, but I was able to have deep and impacting discussions on the Word’s content with peers of my own age. After saying goodbye to my bar lifestyle, I also ended up saying goodbye to quite a lot of “friends” who didn’t understand why I no longer wanted to be fun. So, House also provided me with a new friendship pool. Not only were the members of House fellow believers, but they soon would be my closest friends and confidants.

I dealt with a lot of loss since joining House. And whereas I might have once crumbled over that pain, the people I met in the organization were exactly the sort of people I needed. Each and every one of them has strength and compassion unparalleled to anyone else I’ve ever met. I honestly cannot express how blessed I am to have them; they are simply great, godly people.

And while being surrounded by such great, godly people, its hard not to also become godly. I feel excited to join House for church every Sunday, I eagerly await Wednesdays to participate in our weekly Bible Study, I even organized my own women’s Bible study group — something of which I NEVER thought I’d see myself do!

It’s amazing to think that little over a year ago I didn’t even want God in my life. I didn’t want to care about what He wanted from me. I didn’t want to change from my sinful nature. I didn’t want Him to see what I was becoming…

Yet God always has a way of knowing exactly what we need when we need it. It’s easy to forget and want to rush things to our own timeline, but that never truly works out in the ways we want, does it? No, God is the only one omniscient of our futures and what is best for us.

So, though I continue to struggle against my sinful nature on a daily basis, I gladly welcome God into my heart nowadays. Vices will always surface in a sin-filled world, but the Word’s verses hold me strong in His ways. Philippians 4v13: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. This I know is true.


 

God works in mysterious ways to bring us to His saving kingdom. As I said at the beginning of this post, testimonies are used to not only empower us to share His Word, but also to glorify God. If you are willing to share, I would love to hear your own testimony! 

A Letter to My Former Selves

Dear Former Selves,

Today, I turn 25. And although I have made several jokes about keeping my birthday hush-hush, have complained about my back hurting, and even threatened that a quarter-life crisis was about to ensue, I am actually very happy with my age and the woman I am becoming. Thinking back, though, over the past ten years I cannot honestly say this feeling is something I anticipated.

You’re 15 today. You’re 15 and you’re a freshman in high school. You have no idea what you’re doing with your life: you’re playing sports that you don’t care about, you’re allowing that girl who had once been your friend to hurt your feelings on a daily basis, you’re excelling in school with no effort. You’re simply placing one foot in front of the other waiting for the freedom a driver’s license promises and what the next four years of school might bring.

I’m here to tell you that your high school years are not the best times of your life. The sports don’t establish your future reputation, that bully will have no precedence in your life once you graduate, and the friendships you have during those short four years aren’t of any substance. Actually, you only associate with two or three people from high school on a somewhat-regular basis in the future… Your friends during your high school year do not become lifetime friends.

So, in short, high school does not matter.

And when I say high school doesn’t matter, I also mean that the opinions of those in high school do not matter. That guy with the pretty blue eyes who you’re crushing over will never ask you out. In reality, no one will ever ask you out. You’re not flirty. You’re not easy. And you’re not the “ideal look.” I know that may not make you popular now, but that’s a good thing.  Popularity is overrated, and those who were popular in high school tend to fade once those years are over. You’re saving your shine for a much more important time in your life… so don’t fuss.

The only thing that matters is your grades. Keep them up. If you have to compete with Hasse, do so. Compete and win. You’re a smart cookie and that’s what is going to get you to where you need to be after high school is over. So, for now, make memories: go to school dances, goof off in homeroom, try every single sport and club available. Make memories and have fun doing so! You’ll only be in high school once, and even though they are not the best years of your life, you can’t go back and make them up. So make the most of them!

You are worthy of happiness and excitement.

You’re 19 today. You’re 19 and you’re still a freshman, but in college now. You’re presently experiencing a high with the new-found freedom of living on your own, an hour away from home and everyone you once knew. You’ve been granted a Presidential Scholarship, you’re one of the elite Honors students on campus, and you’re quickly making lots of new Facebook friends. You also are in love with the best boy you’ve ever met. But let me forewarn you, you’re about to go through a rocky semester: your roommate and you are not going to be BFFs, your grades are going to slip, and you’re going to go weeks on end without seeing your family and boyfriend.

College is not all its cracked up to be. There are basically two routes: party hard and crash harder or work hard and work harder. I am proud of you that you take the latter route. Your freshman year, in a lack of words, is going to be hell. I remember how many nights you’re going to spend crying. Tears due to loneliness and homesickness and failure.

Stop fretting! Yeah, it’s tough being treated like an outcast by the group of girls you had set out to make your best friends. Yeah, it’s tough actually having to put in the effort to get good grades. But guess what? Life is tough, and you learned that lesson a lot quicker than most of your peers. You’re going to make it through this “year from hell”.

In actuality, I only have a few regrets from this college year. One is that I ever let one person, especially a roommate who I hardly knew, dictate my entire freshman year. A second is that I didn’t push myself harder in classes to truly show what I was capable of to my professors and peers. A third is that, instead of going out and attempting to meet different friends, I allowed my failure at befriending a certain group of girls to throw me into such a depressed individual. Perhaps this doesn’t make sense now, but when the chances arrive, I wish you would simply NOT. Not let your roommate dictate the year, not take the easiest routes in your studies, and not put all your effort into meaningless relationships. I’d also add that you should just start off at WMU and not transfer next year, but we both know that can’t happen now so…

You are worthy of true friendship and high self confidence.

You’re 22 today. Somehow, someway, you’re in your final year of college. You didn’t think this year would ever come! You’re working two part-time jobs, paying a lot of tuition to work at an unpaid internship, and attempting to finish your schooling within four years. Thankfully, the stress is manageable because you’re newly engaged and ecstatic about spending the rest of life with this wonderful guy in your life… oh how soon things will change.

I wish I could send you some words of advice to help ease the impending heartbreak you’re about to endure. Not only will you be losing the carefully planned future you’ve drawn up in your mind, but you’ll also be losing one of your only friends. You’re going to want to quit. You’re going to want to give up. But I’m here to show you that you can’t… that you won’t.

I don’t have any advice on how to make the loss of X any easier. And in all honesty, I don’t want it to be easier. I know that might sound cruel, and in a few months you’re going to be cursing me, but hear me out: X leaving you is the best thing to ever happen to you. I know, I know, I sound crazy. Yet, I will stand here until my dying day saying the same thing. Without that awful heartbreak you would never have realized what a broken person you were inside. You were so dependent on X that you were only a shell of the person you should have been. You were shy and you were reticent. You bottled up your emotions until you were a sobbing, shivering wreck of a girl. You closed yourself to new relations and friends, you focused solely on a future X and you designed and never opened yourself to other possibilities in life.

You were weak.

When X leaves you, you are going to feel like the light has been snuffed out of your soul. It’s going to hurt more than words can express, and I am so sorry. But you are a phoenix, my dear! Out of the ashes, a new life is going to appear and you are going to be startling. Just you wait, your strength and fire are something to challenge every fiber of the world around you in the future.

You are worthy of someone worthy of you.

You’re 24 today. You look in the mirror and am surprised at the girl in front of you. The tear stains of the past have been washed away, the heartache of lost friendship and love has been mended into a lasting smile, and the weariness of the future doesn’t cause you to slouch anymore.

The biggest change, though, cannot be seen on the outside. No, the biggest change is inside your heart. Two months ago you made a courageous step, and I am so, so proud of you! Two months ago you visited a new church — a church where people your own age congregate and worship together. That visit turned into weekly attendance and now you are hosting a Bible Study group at your home. For someone who only months ago questioned if God truly cared about her because of all the supposed pain He had put her through… this. Is. Huge.

Looking back, all those trials you went through only support how much God cares about you. Every single bump in the road made you a stronger, smarter, and savvier woman, something not to be taken lightly in today’s world. His Hands are on every moment and there is peace in that recognition. You’re going to need that knowledge for the year ahead…

I once thought the year following X’s departure was the hardest year we’d ever have to experience. I actually wish that were true, my dear. No, this next year is going to be much tougher. Loss of a romance is the sort of heartbreak that is fixable after time and healing. Loss of a loved one — true loss — is not able to be mended. The pain of death may decrease with time, but that hurt is never truly gone. You’re about to experience this firsthand on several occasions over the next year. And you are going to scream from the pain your heart feels on more than one occasion.

Luckily, you have reopened your heart to the best medicine Life has to offer: God. And, for some reason still unknown to me, He has granted you with people — your parents, M, Wilbur, Panda, House — to give you the strength you need to move forward even in your pain. Do not take these people for granted, Ash. They are the greatest blessings in your Life. Focus on keeping momentum and pushing past all thoughts of what you could have said or done. The past is the past and can’t be changed; those you lose over the next year knew how important they were to you and that’s a joy in itself. Use their losses to spur your heart into action and continue their legacies. Do the best you can, they would be proud of you for that.

You are worthy of God’s grace and peace in Life.

I’m 25 today. I have a lot still to learn, but I also have much experience under my belt. As I enter the next quarter century of my life, there is a lot I plan to do: pursue a rewarding career, set my roots and grow a family, increase my community impact, read more and complain less, be more active, and be more thankful. As I have become prone to saying here on Peonies ‘n Mint: I really have lost some and gained more.

Thank you, friends, for joining me in my Life travels so far… cheers to the next year and, God willing, many more!