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Family Christian

  • Shedding Light On the Story

    John

    Several years ago, when Matthew West invited people to share their stories to serve as inspiration for an upcoming album, he had no idea it would be the start of an amazing journey that would forever change his music, ministry and life. Armed with more than 10,000 stories from fans all over the world, the floodgates of inspiration opened and West crafted a landmark album, The Story of Your Life. Suddenly people were given a voice and a chance for their stories to be heard. It started a powerful wave that continues with even greater momentum on West’s new album Into the Light.

    “On every level it has been the single most fulfilling thing that I’ve had a chance to be a part of in my career,” West says. “It’s just the added element of emotion that I feel by having a chance to be a part of this person’s story and to share their story with an audience. Something really special is taking place and I’m along for the ride for as long as it needs to go. As long as those stories come in, I think I’m going to keep making these kinds of records.”

    I ran into Matthew at a recent festival and we decided to talk over what has been happening in his life.

    John:               Matthew, on your album The Story of Your Life you had letter after letter, story after story filling you with ideas for a new record. You went back to all those letters that were written to you and continued to go through that process of writing songs based on what people were telling you.

    Matthew:       Sort of, yes.  Well, what’s interesting is instead of going back to all the stories that I had read, the stories never stopped coming in, and so I really didn’t plan on making more than one record of songs inspired by peoples’ stories, but what happened is, after the first 10,000 or so came in, I release The Story of Your Life, which had songs like “My Own Little World” and “Strong Enough.

    What I began to notice is that as one story is told, two more were coming out and saying, “Okay, I want to tell my story now,” and people just began to come out of the woodwork, and at my concerts, it still happens now, at the end of a concert, I’ll go back to the bus with a handful of handwritten stories, and I began to just really feel it press upon me that what was happening by not just putting out a CD, but to put out a CD of songs really putting a new emphasis on, hey, these are the every day true stories of peoples’ lives was beginning to stir something within people, and it really kind of began to refine what I feel my calling is, which is to encourage and empower people to realize that God has a unique one-of-a-kind story that He’s telling through each and every life.

    In the last three years, we’ve received well over 25,000 stories.  In fact, I was just showing my friend this morning some new stories that had just come in, so I can read stories every day, and in many ways, this has just become … it’s not really volume two or volume three.  This is just part of my process now, and I've made a promise that as long as people share their stories with me, I’ll read their stories and turn as many of them as I can into hopefully inspiring music that will challenge and inspire other people.

    John:               Matthew, when read the stories, do you ever feel like a huge weight on your shoulders?  I mean, do you feel like, “Oh my goodness, these people are just pouring their hearts out to me.”  How do you …

    Let me just backtrack a year.  A friend of mine, he works in the ER, and there is a process you kind of have to go through as … things, for different patients that were kind of coming in that didn’t go the way the family were all hoping it would go.  I’m sure you encounter those same type of situations where you’re getting a story that is just like … this is wrong.

    Matthew:       Yes.

    John:               How do you deal with that?

    Matthew:       I think it’s funny you mentioned someone who works in a hospital, or I think at one point in time, we could all say we’ve had a doctor that maybe didn’t have the best bedside manner, or maybe they seemed cold or distant, and I think I've begun to understand how maybe there is that need for a doctor to separate his own personal emotions from a heartbreaking story because he’s seeing it so often.

    And yet, what I've noticed is in my reading, as a songwriter, you’re not a good songwriter if you’re not completely connected with all of your heart when you’re writing that song.  I’m not really afforded that luxury of detaching myself from any emotion.  I have to be running full-speed ahead towards that and embracing what people are writing to me, and I think the only way I can really answer how that’s been able to happen is just I feel like God has really given me different eyes to see these stories.

    What I mean by that is the vast majority of the stories that come in, I’m not going to lie … people will … what I've realized is when you ask somebody “What’s your story?  What was the defining moment in your story?” very few people are going to point to the money in their bank account or their college diploma or what kind of puppy they had when they were growing up.  Instead, they’re going to talk about some of the most difficult moments of their lives or their battle with cancer, or their financial trouble, or their marital trouble, or the abuse they suffered as a child.

    You’re exactly right.  One by one, I've read stories that can be seen as heartbreaking, and yet somehow, some way, and this is no joke, in every story I read, what I can sense is God is still at work, and just in the fact that that person wrote to me, even if that person is writing to me saying, “I’m struggling to see where there’s any hope in my story,” the fact that they’re writing means that they’re searching, means that they’re reaching out, and so while it may be at different stages, God is at work in each and every one of these stories, and his work is not finished yet.

    I really feel like my job is to extract the hope from these stories and to be accurate and authentic with what I’m writing about.  For example, there’s a song on my CD.  It’s called “Two Houses” inspired by a teenage girl who’s dealing with the reality that her Dad just up and walked out, and now she’s having to go back and forth and learn what life and love and trust and all those words are starting to kind of be redefined for her.  Well, I’m not going to just tie a bow on that story and just make it neatly wrapped like the end of a Brady Bunch episode, but I want to be authentic and real and genuine, and yet just as real with the pain, I want to be just as real and authentic with the hope that I believe we all have no matter where we’re at in our stories, and that hope comes from one source, and that’s the hope we have in Christ that he somehow, some way, works all things for the good.

    John:               So life is not summed up in a Brady Bunch episodes.

    Matthew:       It is not, and I’ll tell you what, I’m 25,000 stories and counting.  I’m reading, and I’m realizing that, man, people walk in the doors of the church, and everybody’s trying real hard to act like they’ve got it all together.  These stories I've read, I didn’t advertise that I was collecting stories in People magazine.  There were no posters in bars downtown.  These were people who walk into family Christian stores.  These are people who listen to Christian radio stations or go to church on Sunday, and yet they’re carrying some pretty heavy weight.  They’re carrying some difficult parts of their story, and many of them are struggling to figure out how to move on and how to find healing for those broken places in their story.

    In many ways, I feel like these songs that are coming out of the experience have become sort of a soundtrack for broken people and kind of realizing that, man, there’s community here, and it’s not the fake “everybody’s got it all together” community.  What if it was, “hey, we don’t have it all together, but we all have a story to tell, and we realize that God loves us, and he's not finished with our story yet.”  That’s what fires me up to make music this way.

    John:               You’re a dad … are you a dad?

    Matthew:       I am a dad, yeah, two kids.

    John:               You’re married.

    Matthew:       Yes.

    John:               You’re …

    Matthew:       You’ve got … like how many kids do you have?  Like 12?

    John:              You’re a successful singer/songwriter.  You’re nationally known.  Your face is on a can of Pepsi (so is Franny's, Matt Maher's, and TobyMac's - but still!).

    Matthew:       (laughs) Yes, it is.  I’m infamous, as the Three Amigos once said.

    John:               Infamous.  When … talk to the average Joe who’s just … you know, he's living life, and maybe he’s married, maybe he’s not.  Maybe he’s a single dad, single mom, whatever, and college student, just trying to get through life, and looks at you and says, “Oh yeah, Matthew West, man, he's got it all together.  If only I could be like that guy.”  I mean, how do you live your life on a day-to-day basis, because we know that, you know, being up on stage is not necessarily … that's not life.  I mean, it is who you are, but yet at the same time, how does someone like in your shoes pursue Jesus.

    Matthew:       To start off answering that question honestly, I would say that I've lived much of my life trying to present an image to people of not imperfection but that I've got it all together.  So here's my story.  I grew up as a preacher’s kid and felt an intense pressure as early as I can remember from the people in the church who were looking at me and maybe holding me up to a higher level of expectation, a higher standard, and I constantly just felt like I was living in a glass bubble, and everybody was watching me.

    No lie.  I got to this point where like I felt like I could manipulate and act a certain way.  I knew how to look and talk and act and say all the right things.  I knew that if I … I wrote about this in my book recently that I knew if I raised my hand to worship during the slow song in church that because I was in the front row that the ladies … yeah, everybody behind me would go, “Oh, okay, he’s okay.”

    I saw that as a way of, like, one, that’s a dangerous path to be on, because the authenticity continues to get edged out of your life, and the presentation becomes much more important, much more significant, and then that’s just an open door for sin to creep into your life and for you to realize that you can cover and that you don’t have to be the real deal as long as everybody sees you as the real deal.

    Honestly, reading the stories that I've read, they’ve actually challenged me.  Instead of me getting up on stage and wanting to present myself to somebody who’s got it all together, because guess what?  That preacher’s kid grew up to become a professional singer.  And what do we do?  We’re on stage all the time.  And what do we do when we’re on stage?  Air our dirty laundry?  No, we want to sing well, and we want to look good, and we want to perform.  We want people to applaud us.  These stories have begun to challenge me to realize that’s not what it’s about.  It’s about being authentic, it’s about being real, and it’s about telling your story.

    One of the things that I share from the stage is one of the things that God’s begun to teach me in my life over and over again is that a long time in my life I've spent holding up parts of my story to God, and saying, “God, here, you can use this part of me,” and so I would pick what I think are the best parts of me, and I would put only that under his care.  What these peoples’ stories have taught me and how good things have come out of broken beginnings is that all the while God’s looking at me and everybody else who tries to make everybody think they’re perfect and saying, “I know about your good stuff.  I’m the one who gave it to you.  Give me all the rest.  Give me the worst mistake you’ve ever made.  Give me the junk in your story and watch me work something amazing out of it.”

    I guess one of the songs I’ll be singing on stage tonight is called we are the broken.  That’s kind of like my anthem of going, “I don’t want the audience to look at me and see someone who’s got his act together.  I want them to see somebody who’s realized that we’re all the same, we’re all broken, and yet God somehow isn’t done with us, and when we show the world that we’re broken, the worlds not going to look at us and applaud us anymore.  They’re going to look at God and say, “Wow, God changed his life?  Maybe he can do the same with mine.”

    John:               Why do you think people are so apt to putting on a mask?  Why do you think followers of Jesus … we can understand that maybe somebody who does not know Christ, why they would put on a mask, but I mean, the Gospel calls us to be secure in Christ, but yet at the same time, we are scared to death to expose ourselves to our brothers and sisters in the church?  Why is that?

    Matthew:       For one, I think that’s one of the reasons why somebody who doesn’t have a personal relationship with God would be turned off by the church, and I've heard a lot of people say that.  It’s like, “Man, Christians are two-faced,” or “They’re not authentic,” and I think we could all agree that there’s times where I see more what looks like authenticity in the world.

    John:               Right.

    Matthew:       People that aren’t going to church because they’re not claiming to be anything, do you know what I mean?  I think one of the things that my dad always shared with me that has stuck with me my whole childhood and now where I’m at today because I grew up in church, and at times, I would be hurt or offended or turned off when I saw somebody who out of their mouth was claiming to be a Christian but by their lifestyle and the way they acted and the way maybe they treated my dad or my parents, they didn’t back it up.  It felt like it was two-faced or a double standard.  My dad always said to me, “People inside the church, they’re just as flawed.  The church is filled with broken people who don’t have it all together, and so you can’t let your relationship with God be defined by other Christians.  It has to be between you and God, because people will always let you down.”

    Yet, I think one of the things that I notice, and I travel around churches all the time is I see that sign on the door that says “Come as you are,” and yet when you walk inside, it oftentimes doesn’t feel like the people really believe that.  I think that’s one of the missions that I’m on in having people tell their story is that one of the enemies greatest tricks in our lives and tools is isolation.  If he can get us to feel like, one, you’re messed up, and two, you’re the only one.  If you get that in your head, you start to go back into the shadows, and you start to retreat, and what you do is you retreat in the shadows, but you still have to function in every day life.

    You come to church, but your heart, your soul’s still in the shadows, and you clean yourself off so that nobody will know that you’re in the shadows, and there that isolation goes, and I know that all too well, and that's why I feel like I’m encouraging people to tell their story because I feel like when one person steps up and says, “All right, here's my story, no more mask,” it draws other people out into that light just like that person saying, “I want to find the freedom that that person has.”  How else do you explain 10,000 stories becoming 25,000 stories, becoming what I believe is going to be a million stories?

    It’s not just about a million stories.  It’s about the fact that we’re going from a story-haver to a story teller.  We’re going from being a Christian to being a disciple, you know, to being somebody who believes in you’re head that you’ve been set free to somebody who’s willing to really step into the light and say, “I’m so set free and I've found such freedom in my life because of God that I’m willing to let him even use the not-so-good parts of my life.”

    When that starts happening, a powerful thing takes place in our world, I believe.

    Here is one last story to illustrate that, and it’s a story of a woman named Jenny, and she wrote to me, and she said, “I've never told this to anybody before, but I heard you in a conference talking about telling your story and finding freedom.”  And she said, “Thirty-five years ago, I was a scared teenager, and I got pregnant, and my boyfriend at the time didn’t want anything to do with me or the baby, and I was too scared to tell anybody because I was afraid I'd be judged.”

    So she terminated the pregnancy and never told anybody.  For 35 years, never told anybody, but that isolation made her feel separated from God because she just felt so much shame in her life, and she somehow just felt like, “I need to set this free,” and maybe she felt like sending her story to a complete stranger would be a safe thing.  In fact, I called her and I said, “Why did you send it to me?” and she said, “I never thought you’d actually read it.”  But I did, and I wrote a song about it called “The Healing Has Begun.”

    That woman in the progression in her life to me is a beautiful example of what can happen to all of when we stop wearing the mask and when we step out of isolation and begin to seek out community and mostly communion with God, is now, she just finished her training, and she’s a counselor at the crisis pregnancy center in the town where she lives in.  You see how God is uniquely redeeming her story.  That’s a full circle.  No more mask.  No more isolation.  After 35 years of feeling weighed down, she’s found freedom and joy, and now she’s seeing a purpose even for that most difficult part of her story.

    That’s an example of what I’m hoping to encourage people, and not just other people but myself to walk in that and to realize that, man, God’s going to change your story.  He's going to heal your most broken parts, and he's going to use it in powerful way if you'll let him.

    John:               Awesome.

    For more from Matthew West, click here.

     

  • Jeremy Camp - Continuing to Live Recklessly

    John

    Last year I had the privilege of sitting down with Jeremy Camp to talk about, then, his new album, Reckless (find the interview here). It was an honest conversation with a man who continues to struggle with what it's like to pursue Christ with his whole life. His whole being.

    I say down with Jeremy again because I wanted to "check in" and see what God has been teaching him through this journey. What follows is certainly a continuation of where we left off.

    John:               Jeremy, the thought behind the record is obviously living out this really reckless life with complete abandon to the call of what Christ has for you. What has that looked like in last few months for you?

    Jeremy:           Yea... We've been talking to some missionary friends in the Ukraine and Kurdistan. I didn't know much about Kurdistan at first and we were going, "Hey, let's do these outreaches. This has been in our heart to go to these places. Wherever God leads." Ukraine was coming at it pretty easy. We're like, "This is awesome." Everything was coming together. Churches were coming together. It was one of those, "Yeah, this is definitely the Lord's doing." Then, Kurdistan seemed like it was red flag after red flag. I'm getting all these papers and trying to get my government friends to get papers to say that the government of Kurdistan, "He's a legit person. It's okay." The KGB's looking at me and literally ...

    John:               This is serious stuff.

    Jeremy:           This is all serious. They were looking at YouTube videos and listening to my music and they were concerned. "Why does a Christian artist want to come over here?" I didn't really realize to the full extent that it was a Muslin country so I'm going, "Walking into this proclaiming Christ is not going to be well accepted." When we said we wanted to come over, there was a lot of question, "Why are you coming over?" What happened was it wasn't happening so I started feeling like there was some red flags, maybe we shouldn't go. That wasn't because I was afraid, but it was more like, "Wow. It didn't seem like it was coming together." My missionary friend who had been there for seven years, he emails me back and says ... I've been talking about going, "God, whatever you want, wherever you want me to go I will go." And I meant it from the bottom of my heart. He emails back and says, "Hey. If you don't feel like God wants you to come, that's fine, but just so you know, there's never been an outreach ever in Kurdistan. This is probably the last year that it'll happen because doors are closing very quickly." He said, "We need this. Churches are underground here. People are fearful in their faith."

    Here we are going, "Maybe we didn't really pray about this because my minister director's going, "If we started a non-profit called Speaking Louder Ministries to do these outreaches …" And he's going, "Should we do this? Because it seems dangerous." I go, "Listen, are you willing? Are you willing no matter what God has? We need to pray about this." So we prayed and God gave us, all of us, scriptures, instances where we go, "Yeah. This is definitely what we're supposed to do." We said, "We're going to go." I told my guys, I said, "Guys, here's the dangers: it's underground churches, persecutions, there's stuff going on. Are you willing? Because I don't know what's necessarily going to happen. This is trust in the Lord." I say all this and I'm going to share it tonight the more I think about it because I try to make sure that I'm not exploiting what I went through, "Look what I just did." Because that's not the point, but you're asking ... "Since you've been talking about being reckless. What's going on?" God said, "You want to do this?  You want to be completely surrendered and trust me in the mist of the hardest circumstances? Here you go." Not, "I'm going to teach you how to swim during this ... starting this new ministry that going to do that." I want to throw you in the water and say, 'All right. You're going to trust me.'" That's what it was. I was thrown in the water and said, "Okay God. I've got to look to you completely because I don't know what I'm doing."

    We get over there. Ukraine was amazing. We had 150 people plus come forward at the show and accept Christ in of Ukraine. It was amazing.

    John:               That's awesome.

    Jeremy:           We get to Kurdistan and I'm not going to get fully into it, but we had ...it wasn't well received. We had a cable news program; basically, spreading lies about us saying, "Don't come to the event." The main cable news program in Kurdistan saying, "Don't come." We were warned not to speak. I couldn't speak at the concert they said. They were like, "Jeremy can't speak." This is all the truth. It sounds like, "This really happened?" Even when I looked back, I was going, "This really happened?" I was there and I was in it. I was just in the warfare of it having to get on my knees, basically, and cry out to God. They said if we do something wrong, they were going to imprison one of the locals there for a year. Here we are, faced with reality, faced with like, "Okay God, we’re actually doing what you've laid on our hearts for a long time." I had to get to a point where I said, "Alrigh, God. My life's not my own. Called my wife weeping saying, "Okay. Here we are. What do we do?" It's so hard sharing this because I don't want it to be ... It's not ... I'm still processing it. I just got back a month and a half ago.

    John:               It's real. It's real life.

    Jeremy:           It's real what's happening and people being persecuted, people being afraid of sharing their faith. Their fear is gripping them, all that. I'm fine with the point where I'm weeping saying, "God, I can't do this." And he says, "Perfect, because you can't do it." We get there and hundreds of people left. Eight thousand people showed up, hundreds of people left when we said, "In the name of Jesus," because it was offensive. [inaudible 00:06:01] who were stumbling, in the name of Jesus is. To us, it's life. We saw that. Lyrics meant so much more to me than I can even ... I'm talking about not being ashamed of the Gospel. I'm going, "Oh, wow. We have lyrics on the screens huge in the stadium in their language so they can see what we're saying." It's not just hearing music. They know what we're saying. At the end, people came down to hear more about Jesus. The sad thing is, we got to leave and the missionary friends over there have a warning. If they speak at church anymore, then they'll be deported and they'll close the church down. That's what's happened from this. You know what they told me? The locals have all stepped up and they're on fire because people are wanting to do an event in the stadium, a worship event with the local people. Not an artist coming, but the local people saying, "Let's get together. Let's do this if we're going to really ... "

    I saw the affect of that and it was nothing I did. I was like, "I don't want to go." God goes, "You will go and be obedient." I was like, "Okay." Then, he just showed up and we said, "All right. This is not us, at all." We knew that. It wasn't anything we did. It was God leading and directing. That's what's happening. Speaking louder ministries is the next season of my life where we're ready to go and preach the Gospel. We're going to Japan next year. Going to the Philippines, going to Guatemala.

    John:               That's awesome.

    Jeremy:           That's what I feel like is the next step for us. Whatever it is, wherever he leads, I truly will go and lyrics mean a lot more than they used to because I realized I'd actually lived them out more than I ever have before.

    John:               How can we be praying for you and Addie and the kids? Especially in this next ... whatever this next season, year, whatever this is.

    Jeremy:           We need wisdom. We need wisdom because there's a lot of things we could be doing. Going, "Yeah. That sounds great. We're in a new season." We just need a lot of wisdom because we want to be ... I know it's the basic thing of Christians, "Always want to be in God's will." Honestly, stepping out into something like that, we don't want to be ahead of God's will. You know what I'm saying? It's a serious thing. When I realized the very words that I could have said could have affected the missionaries and the local people there in a heavy way, I realized that my very words and the very actions that I take, if I'm not led by the Lord, could be devastating. I want wisdom to be led by him in everything I do. That's where we're at and I don't really know what this next season looks like. I know what we're going towards, but we don't want to be on the side building our little kingdoms, I know that. That's very easy, especially in this industry. You know?

    John:               Mm-hmm. (affirmative)

    Jeremy:           Everyone had built their little kingdoms and where's the balance? I don't know. That's where we're going. Give us wisdom. I don't want to build my kingdom because that's going to crash and burn. We're here to build the kingdom of God and that's it. That's where we're at.

  • Absence Makes the Heart Grow Colder

    Shaunti

    Most couples call each other "beloved" and "friend" when they stand at the altar. But as the years roll along, it's easy to take each other for granted. A joy of marriage is being able to relax and not be "on" all the time. But problems arise when one day we realize our marriage relationships aren't as close as they used to be.

    This change can happen in any of our relationships — including with the Lord. It's so easy to wake up and discover we still love God, still love our spouse, our relative or our friend ... but there's a little distance there.

    Thankfully the rest of Song of Solomon provides a hint to the solution: This couple spent a lot of time together. And a lot of intimate time together, at that! When I was doing the research for my book The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, I learned the primary factor in creating close friendships isn't shared values, similar interests or compatible personalities: it's geographic proximity. You are closest to those you spend the most time with.

    If you've ever had a dear friend move away, you've discovered that truth. No matter how much you want to stay close, it just isn't the same. It works the same way in all our relationships. In my interviews with the happiest couples, I kept hearing the same thing: these folks were simply hanging out a lot. Not just formal date nights, but going to kids' activities, sharing a hobby or even watching their favorite TV series together.

    These happy couples acted as if their marriages were first and foremost friendships. Friendships they wanted to keep vibrant no matter what.

    One husband told me, "For me, getting married was because I wanted a lifelong companion. It wasn't about the sex or the tax write-off. I wanted a built-in best friend for the rest of my life. Most people probably do. So you need to look at the reasons you want to be in a relationship in the first place, and be intentional to make it happen."

    And that is what suffers when we begin to take God, our spouse, a friend or relative for granted — we stop being intentional. We stop spending as much time together. We get so busy with other priorities and don't make room for our main priority. Then as we become more distant, little irritations become bigger frustrations.

    And what do we do next? We spend even less time together. Our parents irritate us so it seems better not to have dinner together for a while. We're tired of marital conflict so we avoid our spouse. Or we are mad at God because a desperate prayer wasn't answered the way we wanted, so we stick our prayer journal in a drawer.

    All of those solutions are tempting, but they ensure that while we may still call the other "beloved," we will no longer feel like "friends." And after a while, "beloved" may become a casualty too.

    Do you want to be closer to your spouse? Are you irritated with a friend or relative? Feeling distant from God? Emulate those who enjoy their relationships the most — by hanging out more, not less. You may just find enjoyment welling up again in your relationships too.

    Lord, thank You for the special gift of these relationships: (mention by name). Forgive me for taking them for granted. Most of all, forgive me for taking You for granted. I am so grateful that even when I pull away, You are the friend that sticks closer than a brother. Help me to be intentional about investing more time where it is needed, especially with You, and [if married] with my beloved, my best friend. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

    Reflect and Respond: If you and your spouse (or other close relationship) haven't been spending enough time hanging out, what are some of the reasons? What can you do differently?

    What obstacles get in the way of hanging out with the Lord? What steps can you take to make more time together with God a reality?

    Power Verses: Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, "Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed. If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble. Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm. But how can one be warm alone? A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken." (NLT)

    © 2014 by Shaunti Feldhahn. All rights reserved.

    Proverbs 31 Ministries 630 Team Rd., Suite 100 Matthews, NC 28105 www.Proverbs31.org

  • Time to Go

    Boyd

    By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. Hebrews 11:8

    It is time to go when God says so, even though you are not sure where you are going. Abraham was a “friend of God” (James 2:23 nasb) who trusted the heart of God. He was secure in his faith, knowing his heavenly Father would not lead him astray. Are you okay with only the call of Christ as your next step? Is He calling you out of your comfort zone to a new level of faith and obedience? It is here that you hear Him quite clearly.

    Maybe He wants you to move with your company so your career can become the means of funding your passion for missions. Locals in foreign countries are keenly interested in teachers, housewives, doctors, bankers, and businessmen visiting their world. The marketplace is your ministry. It validates your value and confirms your character. The Lord will use your obedience to encourage the faith of others and especially the faith of your family.

    The faith of parents often procures the blessing of obedience on their posterity. When your teenage son sees you say yes to Christ’s challenge, he is more likely to say yes to wisdom when faced with issues of trust. Your daughter will not soon forget your family’s earnest prayers as you sought to see God’s best and to obey. Parents who obey God’s call create the same expectation for their children; so follow the Lord for them.

    Lastly, the call of Christ leads to His blessing on earth and in heaven. It may mean prosperity. It may mean poverty. Or it may mean somewhere in between. The most important reward is that of your eternal inheritance. Leave a legacy of loving the Lord, and you will have loved your children. Follow Him faithfully; there is a much higher probability they will as well. Is it time to go? Then go with your best friend Jesus.

    The Bible says, “God’s intimate friendship blessed my house” (Job 29:4).

    Where is Christ calling me to a higher level of faith and obedience?

    Prayer: Related Readings: Nehemiah 9:7–8; Psalm 105:6–11; Acts 7:2–4; Galatians 3:6

    Taken from the February 23rd reading in Boyd’s 365-day devotional book, “Seeking Daily the Heart of God vol. 2”

    Post/Tweet today:Parents who obey God’s call create the same expectation for their children; so follow the Lord for them. #timetogo

    © 2014 by Boyd Bailey. All rights reserved.

    Wisdom Hunters Resources / A registered 501 c3 ministry info@mail.wisdomhunters.com /www.wisdomhunters.com

  • Love Always Perseveres

    Boyd

    Love always perseveres. 1 Corinthians 13:7

    Love always perseveres. It does not give up. This is why the love commitment of husbands and wives is “till death do us part.” This is the assurance that accompanies love, for it is loyal in the face of hard times. “I don’t love you anymore” is not an option for couples committed to Christ. Love always perseveres. It perseveres through problems; it perseveres through misunderstandings; it perseveres though uncertainty; it perseveres through knock down, drag out arguments; it perseveres through persecution, divorce, and abandonment; it perseveres through a lawsuit or being fired.

    Love becomes better instead of bitter when experiencing a raw deal. God’s grace and love provide you the lasting ability for extraordinary love. Indeed, if your heavenly Father didn’t personally love you, your love would be lethargic. It would be sluggish in its application to others if you were not daily loved by the Lord. You can’t be an unconditional lover if you don’t receive the unconditional love of Jesus. Therefore, love always perseveres in the process of being loved and extending love.

    This is why a parent perseveres in his or her love for their child. They can only give up on loving their loved one when their heavenly Father gives up on loving them. Parents persevere with their children because they love their children. Even through the hurt, rejection, selfishness, financial irresponsibility, and anger, love still stands. Love will not stand down to the devil’s strongholds in a young person’s mind and heart.

    Moreover, love perseveres in reminding them of the truth. Remind your children that their identity is in Christ . Your child is forgiven by you and by God; remind them of this. God has uniquely gifted your child; remind them of this. Love perseveres in reminding and revealing truth to those it loves. Pray the eyes of your child’s heart will see and understand the truth of who they are from God’s perspective. They are longing for love, so be the lead lover in their life.

    Lastly, persevere in your love for your parents. Parents can be distant and disinterested, but still love them. To some degree, they may still be licking the wounds of past hurts and disappointments. They need love as much as or more than anyone else. Love your mom and dad while they are still alive. One day they will not be around to love, so express all your love for your parents in this life. You plan for no regrets when you aggressively love them now.

    They may have chronically hurt you, but still love them. They may not love back, but still love them. They may be caught up in their own cares, but still love them. Love knows better, so it perseveres beyond bitterness and betrayal. You lose when the flames of love are extinguished by sheer exhaustion. You may need to rest in, receive, and be rejuvenated by the loving relationship of your friend, Jesus. Slow down and be loved. Persevere in your love, and one day you will be grateful you did. It is an invaluable investment because love leaves no regrets. It always perseveres.

    Taken from the February 22nd reading in Boyd’s 365-day devotional book, “Seeking Daily the Heart of God vol. 1”

    Post/Tweet today:Wecan only give up on loving a loved one when our heavenly Father gives up on loving them. #loveperseveres

    © 2014 by Boyd Bailey. All rights reserved.

    Wisdom Hunters Resources / A registered 501 c3 ministry info@mail.wisdomhunters.com /www.wisdomhunters.com

  • God’s Will: Salvation

    Boyd

    The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us,not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. 2 Peter 3:9, NKJV

    Our gracious God desires all to know Christ through repentance, forgiveness, faith, and a lifetime of loving intimacy. Jesus came the first time to earth as our Savior. After His resurrection, as He ascended back to heaven, He promised to return. Christ will come again as our judge. However, our heavenly Father’s patient mercy delays His son’s return. Jesus waits, so the unredeemed have time to believe and become sons and daughters of the Almighty. God’s will is salvation in Jesus.

    Like the door to Noah’s ark eventually closed, so our opportunity to trust Christ is slowly slipping away. The flood waters of judgment will one day drown us in death. Will we be ready? Salvation and safety can only be found in our Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord’s patient love invites us to repent, trust and not perish. Yes, we still have time to warn others of the judgment to come. Some will mock, others will act apathetic, but a few will find refuge in Jesus.

    "Or do you show contempt for the richesof his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance" (Romans 2:4)?

    Moreover, the patience of our heavenly Father is the model for us to follow. We are surrounded by a sea of those who need salvation. They are drowning in their sin and sorrow. By offering them the life preserver of faith, hope and love for Jesus we can rescue the perishing. A life preserver is useless unless it is deployed. Therefore, we pray daily how we might bless those we encounter with a buoyant belief in Jesus Christ. Once saved, we help others be saved.

    Lastly, regularly receive the Lord’s great love, so you can be a great lover. When you are loved well by Jesus, you can love well for Jesus. Love is patient. Love is kind. Patience and kindness are twins that draw the lost into a loving relationship with Jesus. People away from Christ, have no context for Christ, so be kind. An unsaved soul is an insecure soul, so be patient. We know a better way to salvation than do strangers. God’s will is for those without faith to find faith.

    "Who [God] wantsall people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4)."

    Prayer: Heavenly Father, thanks for Your patient love that allows others to repent and not perish.

    Related Readings: Habakkuk 2:3; Romans 11:14; Hebrews 10:37; 2 Peter 3:15; Revelation 2:21

    Post/Tweet today: Receive the Lord’s great love, so you can be a great lover of the lost. #God’swill

    © 2014 by Boyd Bailey. All rights reserved.

    Wisdom Hunters Resources / A registered 501 c3 ministry info@mail.wisdomhunters.com /www.wisdomhunters.com

  • The Emotionally Destructive Marriage from Leslie Vernick

    Leslie

    Introduction

    Hanging On by a Thread

    It’s easy to find a plethora of good books about how to be a godly wife or what steps to take to build a successful and happy marriage. There aren’t many books written on how to wisely deal with a destructive and abusive marriage. As a counselor and coach, I have grown increasingly troubled by the advice hurting women receive from well- meaning pastors, Christian counselors, friends, and lay leaders when they seek help for their destructive and abusive marriages. Many times we’ve not understood the gravity of the problem. We’ve misdiagnosed a marriage that has terminal cancer and treated it as if it were only suffering from a common cold. We’ve also misplaced the responsibility for keeping the marriage alive by putting an extraordinarily heavy burden on a wife’s shoulders to somehow maintain a loving and warm relationship with a husband who treats her with cruelty, disrespect, deceit, and gross indifference. It’s not feasible, nor is it biblical.

    Each week e-mails flood my inbox from women desperate for answers, hanging on to their marriages and sometimes their sanity by a single thread. The details vary, but the questions are usually the same: “What do I do?” and “Where do I turn for help?” The woman’s spirit, and sometimes her body, is depressed and depleted from the distress she feels within the walls of her own home. She wants to honor God and do his will, but does that mean she must continue to allow herself to be destroyed by her husband, a man who has promised to love and protect her?

    Marriage and family are important to God, but just as important to him are the individuals within those marriages and families. God does not value men more than women, or the institution of marriage more than the people who are in it. He wants to help you know how to heal and what to do to bring true restoration to your destructive marriage. He also knows that because of the hardness of your husband’s heart, true reconciliation of your relationship isn’t always possible.

    Throughout this book you will clearly see what’s wrong and why keeping the marriage together at all costs or at any price can be dangerous. You will gain fresh insights and a new paradigm in which to understand your role in your marriage. You’ll learn strategies and be given tools so that you can find your own voice again and be able to develop the strength and courage to stand up against the destruction. Within these pages is a biblical road map to help you know whether genuine repentance and restoration is taking place, and what the specific steps are to get there. The Emotionally Destructive Marriage is divided into three parts. Part 1, “Seeing Your Marriage Clearly,” will help you distinguish the difference between a disappointing marriage and a destructive one. At the end of chapter 1, there is a self-administered test you can take to determine whether you are in a destructive marriage. In chapter 2 you will learn what a healthy marriage looks like and the three essential ingredients that are required for any relationship to flourish. Chapter 3 will open your eyes to the different types of destructive relationship patterns and why they are so damaging to you, your children, and your marriage. In chapter 4 you will see that God hates what’s happening to you. He is with you and for you and wants to help you make changes so that genuine healing can take place.

    Part 2, “Change Begins with You,” opens with chapter 5 showing you the ways you may be unknowingly enabling the destruction in your marriage to continue. You will understand how being a true biblical helpmate is very different than staying inappropriately submissive and silent about the destruction. In chapter 6 you’ll understand why trying harder in the traditional wifely ways will make a destructive marriage worse and how the common teachings on biblical headship and submission can lead to an abuse of power and entitlement thinking. Chapter 7 will help you build internal core strength, so that when the time is right, you will be empowered to take firm yet godly action to protect yourself and your children. Then, in chapter 8, you will know exactly what you need to do to prepare before you have a difficult conversation with your husband about his destructive behaviors.

    In part 3, “Initiating Changes in Your Marriage,” you’ll be given specific strategies to wake up your husband to his destructiveness and invite him to godly change. In chapter 9 you’ll discover how to speak up in love, using words that invite your spouse to stop his destructive behaviors and attitudes without shaming, scolding, or disrespecting him. In chapter 10 you will receive a plan on how to calmly confront your husband, together with examples of specific consequences you can implement if he refuses to listen. Chapter 11 takes you step by step through your biblical options if nothing changes in your marriage, and ways you can stay strong and God-centered in the midst of continued destructive behaviors. Lastly, in chapters 12 and 13, you’ll learn the specific changes that are required if a destructive marriage is to heal, and how you will know whether or not you’re making progress as a couple. In the closing epilogue, I invite you to read the words of an abusive man who is learning to become a better man.

    I debated whether to write this book just for women or to include men, as they, too, are in destructive marriages and feel distraught, impotent, and confused about how to change the damaging dynamics in their marriages. In the end I decided to write this book for women, but if you are a man who is looking for answers for your destructive marriage, you will find help within the pages here if you can overlook the stories and illustrations depicting men as the primary perpetrators. You can also find additional resources at www.leslievernick.com/the-emotionally-destructive -marriage, if your wife is the one who is the destructive partner.

    The individuals in each story are disguised except for those who have given me permission to use their real names. Some stories or characters are composites to illustrate a specific point. All are pictures of the painful realities some women must live with day after day, week after week, year after year.

    Please hear me: God doesn’t want you to hang on by a thread, my friend. He gives you a lifeline. Grab hold of it and live.

    Part 1

    Seeing Your Marriage Clearly The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! Jesus, in Matthew 6:22–23

    One Are You in an Emotionally Destructive Marriage?

    For nothing is hidden except to be made manifest; nor is anything secret except to come to light. —Mark 4:22

    Several years ago, while speaking in Hungary, I was shocked to see the new title the Hungarians had given one of my books when they translated it into their language. It was now called How to Survive a D-Minus Marriage. My sister, Patt, who had accompanied me on this speaking trip, joked with me about whether or not people would admit their marriages were that bad. But during the event, the book sold like hot cakes. Marriages everywhere are in dire straits. Christian homes are no exception.

    You may feel as if you are in a D-minus marriage and have no idea what to do. I have help for you, but first it’s important to clarify the difference between a disappointing marriage and a destructive one.


    Excerpted from The Emotionally Destructive Marriage by Leslie Vernick Copyright © 2013 by Leslie Vernick. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

  • Jesus Came to Heal Hurting Hearts

    Suzie

    "The Spirit of the Lord is on Me. He has put His hand on Me to preach the Good News to poor people. He has sent Me to heal those with a sad heart. He has sent Me to tell those who are being held that they can go free. He has sent Me to make the blind to see and to free those who are held because of trouble." Luke 4:18 (NLV)

    "Why can't you get it together?"

    "If you would just try harder."

    Have you heard any of these statements? Maybe you've even said them to yourself.

    Perhaps those who stood on a hot hillside in Nazareth were asking themselves the same questions. Many tried hard to follow all the religious laws, but knew they fell short. Would Jesus give them more rules to follow? Imagine their surprise as Jesus spelled out His personal mission statement:

    I've come to open the eyes of the blind.

    I've come to set the prisoner free.

    I've come with good news for the poor in spirit.

    I've come to heal the brokenhearted.

    The crowd must have been shocked by His words, for they expected a warrior, not a heart surgeon. Jesus Himself was setting the record straight. He came so that we might be made whole ... through Him.

    For those who had been trying harder, striving more, it was a transforming message. They were accustomed to following rules or meeting expectations of man, rather than resting in the power of their almighty God.

    When I became a believer, I didn't understand Jesus' mission statement. I was dealing with untended brokenness and trying everything to fix myself. When I grasped the power of Luke 4:18, this truth changed me: The power of the cross is not found in what I do, but in what has already been done for me.

    Jesus didn't mean for us to do this alone. It's not our strength or power that will transform us. Yes, we make changes. Yes, we open our broken heart to His tender touch. Yes, we allow Him to move us in uncomfortable directions to discover new paths — and leave old ones behind. But we are in a partnership with God ... and He's bigger.

    I also discovered I didn't have to earn God's love. Maybe, like me, you thought God would love you one day, when you had it all together.

    Jesus' mission statement proclaims that He loves us today. With our baggage and hurting hearts. When we grasp that kind of love, it changes us. It compels us to return that love, and to trust Jesus from our hearts.

    This trust helps us listen for His voice. We sense when He is teaching or redirecting us. We weigh temptation in light of our love for our heavenly Father. This relationship helps us discover our "true selves, [our] child-of-God selves" (John 1:12, The Message).

    Last, Luke 4:18 reminded me that I didn't have to run away just because I felt broken.

    A hurting heart can send us running down paths we may regret, searching for something or someone to ease our pain. Jesus' mission statement invites us to stop running and rest in Him, expectant that our true selves will emerge with His healing touch.

    The truth of Luke 4:18 is ours today to hold close, for Jesus came to heal our hurting hearts.

    Dear Jesus, for the longest time I've been concentrating on my efforts, but today I expectantly rest in You. Thank You that the power of the cross is not in what I do, but in what has already been done for me. In Jesus' Name, Amen.

    Reflect and Respond: Today, you read about what you don't have to do. You don't need to fix yourself, or earn God's love or run any more. In fact, the more you don't do these things, the more you live in Him. The more you don't do these things, the more you build a foundation of rest and trust. The more you don't do these things, the more joy you rediscover in your faith.

    What will you not do today?

    Power Verses: Psalm 147:3, "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." (NIV)

    Psalm 34:18, "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." (NIV)

    © 2014 by Suzie Eller. All rights reserved.

    Proverbs 31 Ministries 630 Team Rd., Suite 100 Matthews, NC 28105 www.Proverbs31.org

  • God’s Will: Purity

    Boyd

    It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality;that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4

    When we signed up to be a Christian, we signed away our old way of life. We became counter cultural in our character. We no longer tolerate sin in our actions, because we have a new life in Christ. Once saved, we were set apart for the will of Almighty God. We are separated from society's acceptance of deviant behavior. We are in the process of being purified by the Holy Spirit for our Savior’s purposes. Like a compliant child, we want to obey our heavenly Father.

    Yes, we have God given urges: to sleep, eat, drink, and have sex. However, these desires can be a blessing or a curse. It depends on our willingness to follow the Lord’s plan for these perfectly legitimate instinctive actions. Lazy behavior can be the fruit of too much sleep, gluttony feeds unbridled eating, shameful drunkenness comes from excessive drinking and immorality is the outcome of sexual behavior between a man and woman outside of marriage. God’s will is for our urges to be under the control of His Spirit. Sexual purity frees us from an obsessive appetite.

    "The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord,and the Lord for the body"(1 Corinthians 6:13).

    A flippant treatment of the body is unfaithfulness to the Lord. Sexual purity honors the Lord, sexual impurity dishonors the Lord. Sexual purity provides security, sexual impurity creates insecurity. Sexual purity protects from disease, sexual impurity invites illness. Sexual purity is free from regrets, sexual impurity wrestles with guilt. Sexual purity builds marriages, sexual impurity tears down marriages. God’s will is to live pure and free under the Spirit’s control.

    Therefore, present your body on the altar of God’s holiness. Be purified by His Spirit and set apart for obedience to His commands. Your relationship with your body reflects your relationship with God. Thus, love and nourish yourself physically, as you love and nourish yourself spiritually. Your Creator created your beautiful body for Himself. Your sanctified self makes God smile. Save yourself for physical intimacy in marriage and you will grow in intimacy with Jesus.

    "Therefore, I urge you,brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conformto the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:1-2).

    Prayer: Heavenly Father, I present my body to be purified on the altar of Your holiness.

    Related Readings: 1 Corinthians 5:9-11; Romans 6:19; Hebrews 12:14; 1 Peter 3:17

    Post/Tweet today: Our relationship with our body reflects our relationship with God. #wisdomhunters

    © 2014 by Boyd Bailey. All rights reserved.

    Wisdom Hunters Resources / A registered 501 c3 ministry info@mail.wisdomhunters.com /www.wisdomhunters.com

  • Miss Brenda and the Loveladies from Brenda Spahn

    Brenda

    Introduction

    Make sure you are doing what God wants you to do—then do it with all your strength. —George Washington

    I was raised in a trailer. My parents struggled to feed and clothe me. Because I grew up without having much, I promised myself one day I’d be very rich.

    Decades later, I had built a successful business. I finally had what I could only dream of as a child—a big house, fancy cars, expensive jewelry, and all the material things I could ever want.

    At the height of success, I found myself under investigation for a crime I didn’t commit. I faced the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence. All those possessions I had accumulated and cherished I was likely to lose. I had always felt I was in control of my life and my destiny. Once I was at the mercy of the legal system, I realized I was in control of nothing.

    I lost my business, but I found another calling. I lost my riches, but I discovered riches of the spirit. I lost my faith in the system, but I discovered another faith—a faith in things that never depreciate or corrode or collapse. I found faith in God and the indomitable power of redemption—for myself and for a group of incarcerated women who’d been catastrophically abused by the system, by spouses, by parents, and by themselves.

    Instead of chasing the American Dream, rehabilitating these women became my career. I learned that within each of them—even the most terrifyingly brutal felons—dwelled an undeniable spark of the divine.

    Junkies, grifters, armed robbers, prostitutes, drunks, dealers, and murderers became my new social circle. They were former inmates of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama—another monolithic bureaucracy that warehoused the forgotten until they disappeared, returned, or died. Its motto could have been “Abandon hope.”

    They became the Loveladies. In the beginning, no name would have been more improbable. In time, no name could have been more fitting.

    This is my story. This is their story. Meet the Loveladies.

    Chapter 1: Have I Lost My Mind?

    Fear is faith that it won’t work out. —Elbert Hubbard

    Oh my Lord, what have I done!” I gasped. I stared out the kitchen window as six violent criminals stomped up my driveway. Hunter, my four-year-old adopted son, stood on tiptoes trying to get a glimpse of what had me so terrified.

    “Your mama has messed up big-time,” I said.

    For the last month, I had pictured this moment time and time again—but it had looked very different. In my imagination, the women would skip up the driveway, giggling and talking excitedly. I’d open the door with a loud “Welcome!” and women would race toward me, enveloping me in big, grateful bear hugs. After they’d thanked me profusely for being so wonderful, we’d sit around the kitchen table, have lunch, drink tea, share laughs, and get to know each other. But these women stomping up my driveway didn’t look like they wanted tea. They looked like they wanted blood.

    Had I lost my mind?

    Jeff, my husband, had predicted this. “You’ll get yourself killed, Brenda,” he said when I first told him my plan to rehabilitate female convicts. “You’ve had a lot of wild schemes in your life, but this is the craziest I’ve ever heard.” Yes, but a lot of my schemes had worked out, and besides, this was different. This time it wasn’t about me.

    Now six very scary women, just released from the roughest women’s prison in the country, were in my driveway.

    I thought I had figured it all out. After spending months helping female convicts at a work release center, I thought I understood them. I had spoken with the inmates, we had prayed together, and they had seemed genuine in their desire to turn their lives around and start over.

    But now I doubted everything. How could I have been so stubborn, so driven, so foolish? How could I have put my little boy in danger?

    The night before, I’d combed through their “jackets”—prison files—and discovered with horror that the parole board wasn’t sending me the nonviolent offenders I’d visited at the work release center. Instead, the women who had just shown up in front of my house had spent, collectively, one hundred years behind bars for crimes such as armed robbery, possession, drug dealing, prostitution, and manslaughter. I found out later that these were the hopeless cases—cases stamped cannot be rehabilitated—that all other programs had rejected. At the work release center, I helped women who were struggling to get their lives together. But the women coming to my home were so hardened, so dangerous, that the system had given up on them. These were not the women I had bargained for.

    I was supposed to rehabilitate them? For the next nine months to a year? I wrapped my arms tight around Hunter. I should have dropped him off with the nanny, but I had been running late. My heart pounded so hard I was sure Hunter could hear it beating. I didn’t want to scare him, so I took a breath and tried to find a portion of calm.

    It wasn’t that I hadn’t prepared. I’d hired a housemother, a cook, and a driver. I owned a six-thousand-square-foot house with seven bedrooms and six bathrooms on ten acres of property that no one lived in. Hob Hill was perfect: it would become my “whole-way” house for parolees as they transitioned into the real world. This is a good plan, I reassured myself.

    These women would learn a skill and receive counseling, therapy, and, if need be, treatment for addiction. Since my program was faith-based, I’d teach them about Jesus, His unconditional love, the power of faith, and the reality of redemption. Then I’d get in my Cadillac Escalade and hightail it back to my new home in a gated community a few miles away.

    I reminded myself that I was just supervising this program. You see, I’d be able to supervise it without really getting my hands dirty. I wouldn’t give up my whole life. This would be more a hobby than a vocation.

    And this is how I’ll be able to keep that promise I made.

    Much of my family had been understandably furious with me for pressing forward with my plan, but Melinda, my twenty-eight-year-old, caught my passion and crazy vision. She and I had spent the last month preparing for the women’s arrival. I bought couches, chairs, and tables for the common areas and beds, comforters, dressers, and night tables for the seven bedrooms. I painted the rooms in calming colors—blues, yellows, and every shade of purple. Each bedroom was named after a fruit of the Spirit—joy, peace, self-control, love, patience, kindness, goodness—which I’d carefully painted on the bedroom doors. Each room had color-matching comforters and thick bath towels. I’d decorated the rooms with paintings—many of my favorite getaway, the beach—and supplied them with empty frames so the women could fill them with photographs of their children and families.

    I put the word out to churches that I was looking to hire a cook, a driver, and, most important, a housemother who would run the program in my absence. I soon found the perfect housemother—Claudia. She was forty-eight, single, big, and strong with a gruff, no-nonsense attitude. She had spent time volunteering at the work release center. When I met with her, she told me that God had called her into prison ministry and she was ready to get started.

    I asked if the thought of working with female ex-cons frightened her. She laughed as if I’d asked the most insane question. “I’ll take tigers by the tail,” she said. “This is the work I was meant to do. I’m not afraid. It’s my calling. I know I am going to change lives. The Lord sent me to do this.”

    I hired Claudia on the spot. She was so excited that she hired a moving company to haul all her bedroom and living room furniture into the upstairs master suite and office area. After she surveyed her new home, she nodded. “This is where I’m meant to be.”

    Likewise I’d hired a cook and a driver.

    I could make this work. I had to make this work. For months I’d pleaded with the parole board to release women into my custody so I could help them get their lives back on track. I had told the board their system didn’t work and needed an overhaul. After all, 30 percent of the women released from Alabama prisons returned to prison within the first six months.

    They laughed at me. “What do you know about rehabilitating these women?”

    “I know that giving them ten dollars and a bus ticket is just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. I know I can do better.”

    In Alabama, there were only two options for newly released prisoners: They’d get their ten bucks and transportation back to where they committed their crimes. In a short time they’d go back to old ways with old friends. Or they’d spend a few weeks in a halfway house, where they’d receive food and shelter but little else, then be put back on the street.

    No matter their destination—bus ticket home or halfway house—once they were released, these women had one thing in common: they had no hope. And they had no hope because they couldn’t envision a future outside of prison. To me, the solution was obvious. My whole-way house would be a place where they could change their lives by learning skills and receiving counseling. We would give them a picture of a future they themselves could create, one in which they could succeed.

    I have always considered myself visionary, but the parole board used a different term—delusional. Ultimately I wore them down and they finally agreed, probably just to make me go away.

    Now I realized they were trying to teach me a lesson. I was sure they were having a big laugh about it: “I wonder if that crazy redhead is scared senseless yet. How long until she calls us to take them all back?”

    I crouched lower and squinted through the window, hoping the awnings outside shielded me from the women’s view. My eyes landed on the scariest-looking woman I’d ever seen in my life. Was she even a woman? With a shaved head, baggy khakis, and an extra large navy-blue prison-issued polo shirt that covered her tanklike physique, she resembled a gangbanger looking for trouble. Her fists were clenched, and her eyes blazed with fury.

    Why is she so angry? Doesn’t she see how great her life is about to become? The other women were right behind her. She was the gang leader and they were her loyal followers, standing so close to each other they appeared connected—an impenetrable wall about to storm my house. A heavyset woman who seemed devoid of the fury the rest possessed stopped to gawk at my home. Shaved Head snapped her face toward her and the woman’s expression immediately turned grim.

    Ken, the driver of the van who had shuttled the women from prison to my place, opened the back of the truck. The women collected their belongings. One by one, each woman pulled out a brown paper sack with her name written large in black marker. A paper sack! These were all their possessions in the whole world!

    My heart sank. What about clothes? shoes? things? I hadn’t realized they’d show up with next to nothing. In my naivety, I thought they’d spend most of today unpacking their belongings.

    They were almost at the door—and I was paralyzed. Melinda, who hadn’t been watching them through the window and had no idea what awaited her, realized I wasn’t moving, so she headed to the door.

    Dear Melinda, what have I gotten you into, and why are you so calm? Of all the people in our family, Melinda was the one who had the most personal interest in my crazy dream. To be fair, my husband Jeff couldn’t be there at Hob Hill—he needed to provide income for our family, and our real estate business was located more than four hours away in Gulf Shores. But Jeff, who’d been through plenty of “harebrained Brenda schemes” before, was admittedly not a fan of my “whole-way” idea, even as he tried to be supportive of me.

    Melinda was the one who, ever since she’d been a little girl, had always been by my side. At eleven, she’d sit next to my desk and answer the phone as I filed clients’ tax returns. When she was old enough, she worked with me. When I started helping women at the work release center, she had accompanied me. She was just as passionate as I was to help women turn their lives around.

    I hadn’t mentioned to Melinda that these women might be different from the work release darlings we’d worked with. Apprehensive as I had become from reading the files, I still held out hope that things would work out fine. But one glimpse of the crew of ex-cons who had just shown up shook me. Melinda had spent her life trusting me. Now she was an unwitting partner in my crazy scheme.

    She opened the door wide.

    I scooted toward her. “Welcome to my home,” I blurted out, forcing a big smile.

    The women glared at me. I waited for someone to say something. Instead, they pushed into the house, squeezing through the door in one massive pile. They forced themselves past me as if I wasn’t even there.

    I wanted to stop everything and yell out an order: Get out of my house and get back in the van! Maybe I could just give them some lunch and send them off, saying this was a big mistake.

    Shaved Head came so close to me I could feel her breath on my face. I squeezed Hunter.

    “I ain’t gonna be no maid in a little white apron for you,” she spat out, her voice growing louder with each word. “What the h***’s a g**d***** white woman gonna do with us? Lady, what kinda sh** do you think you’re playing?”

    Sharon “Shay” Curry. Even though she looked different from the photo in the prison jacket (she had hair back then), I recognized her. She was a forty-five-year-old black woman who’d been in and out of prison her whole life. She’d done it all—armed robbery, dealing and using drugs, prostitution, attempted murder. Dear God, attempted murder!

    Shay’s nostrils flared and her eyes bore into me. I watched the other women study her. I could tell they were taking their cues from Shay. In the short time they’d been together—probably since the van ride over—Shay had become the unofficial ringleader.

    I knew if I didn’t win Shay over there would be no way to right this ship.

    Where was Claudia? She’d been watching as the van pulled into my driveway, but I had no idea where she’d gone. It was her job to get the women settled into their rooms—not mine or Melinda’s. Claudia, I told myself, would get the situation under control. She’d know how to handle Shay.

    I took a deep breath, finally answering Shay, speaking as calmly as possible: “Well, I’m gonna help you get your life in order.”

    As soon as the words slipped out, I knew I’d made a mistake.

    “You don’t know sh** about me, lady,” Shay hissed. “You’re just some crazy white lady. How the h*** do you think you’re gonna do that? What do you think you’re going to do for me?”

    My chest tightened and I felt dizzy. I scanned the room, searching for Claudia. The truth was, I didn’t have any plans beyond getting these women into the house and introducing myself. In prison, every second of the day is scheduled. I had wanted to give the women a little breathing room. But already Shay was in my face, angrily demanding answers.

    “What do you think you’re gonna do, lady?”

    I panicked and said just about the stupidest thing I could ever say: “I’m going to help you get your driver’s license.”

    The women burst into laughter.

    Shay looked like she’d just bit into something so vile she might be sick. “I’ve been driving my whole life, lady. I don’t need no driver’s license.”

    And then I said the second dumbest thing I could possibly say: “Well, how do you get insurance without a license?”

    There was another fit of laughter. These women had thought they’d seen it all, but they’d never met a flaming-red-haired fifty-five-year-old woman like me before. I knew they had determined right then that I was a complete idiot.

    I had an uprising on my hands. Where will we hide if they get violent? I had to regain some kind of control before Shay took over my house.

    “Oh, I forgot,” I said, managing an edge of sarcasm. “You’re all about breaking the law.” I rolled my eyes. “You’re real tough guys.”

    They stared at me, their mouths hanging open, shocked that I’d sassed Shay back. I was shocked too but couldn’t help it—throughout my life my big mouth has gotten me into a lot of trouble. But occasionally it saves the day. I was praying that was the case now. Melinda shot me a look that said, What are you thinking? Then she turned toward the women and broke the ice. “Okay, ladies,” she said, smiling sweetly, “how about I show y’all your rooms?”

    The women followed Melinda down the hallway. Some gasped at the bedrooms I had decorated for them. After years of living in a cramped dorm with 160 other women, these rooms with one, two, or three beds or bunkbeds seemed to them like paradise. From the corner of my eye, I saw two of them claim one of the downstairs bedrooms. I watched them stifle giggles as they ran down the hall to fetch their paper bags of belongings.

    Ken, the driver, was a director for alternative treatment programs at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). During the last few weeks he’d become an advocate, helping me prepare my house for the women. He must have thought I was doing fine because I had a big smile plastered on my face. Truth was, my smile was frozen. You’ve heard of people being scared silly? I was scared smiling.

    He smiled back. “I’m taking off,” he called out. “Is there anyone who wants to leave with me?” I heard some of the women giggling from the bedrooms. “No!” one called out from a bedroom. “We’re not going anywhere,” others said. Shay stood silently in the hallway, her arms folded.

    “What about you?” Ken asked Shay.

    Go, I silently begged. Tell him you want to leave. Now. I can handle these other women, but not you. Get your butt in that van. I never want to see you again. Shay scowled at Ken but didn’t answer.

    “Shay? You coming with me?”

    Stop asking and just flippin’ take her! I wanted to scream.

    “Shay?”

    There was a heavy silence. I could feel my future in that void. If she leaves, I stand a chance. If she stays, I’m doomed to fail.

    “I’ll stay,” she said, as if she were doing us all a big favor.

    And with that, Ken left me in a big house with five female ex-cons and one ringleader from hell.

    Shay and the other women headed upstairs to check out the remaining bedrooms with Melinda. As soon as they disappeared, I heard the click of a door unlocking. Claudia ran out, stopping in her tracks when she saw me.

    “Where have you been?” I asked. “I need you to help Melinda.”

    Claudia didn’t move. Gone was the tough broad who was going to take the tigers by the tail. In her place was a timid woman whose eyes were filled with panic.

    “I quit,” she choked out.

    I laughed. “You can’t quit.”

    “I just did. And you should too. You’re going to get yourself and your family killed.”

    Claudia couldn’t do this to me. I had a plan—she would run the program, the cook would cook, the driver would drive, taking the women wherever they needed to go. And me? I’d check in once in a while and make sure they were all doing their jobs. “I’m not even going to be there,” I told Jeff and my family when they expressed concern that I was putting myself in danger.

    I tried to sound calm, but I was a wreck. My heart pounded, and I thought I might collapse. I steadied my voice: “You told me God called you to work with these women. He wouldn’t just change His mind.”

    “The Lord might want me to work with prisoners, but not these prisoners! You’re crazy. I want nothing to do with this insanity.”

    I opened my mouth to beg her to stay, but she swatted her hand in the air, turned, and ran off.

    Just as she left, the cook and the driver came out from wherever they had been hiding. They too raced out the front door.

    I stood in the living room, holding Hunter tight and paralyzed with all kinds of fear. I’d always had a plan, a next move. Now, for the first time I could remember, I had no idea what to do. I prayed for guidance. I prayed for answers. I prayed that these women wouldn’t kill me.

    Was God listening to any of my prayers? Or had He quit on me too?


    Excerpted from Miss Brenda and the Loveladies by Brenda Spahn and Irene Zutell Copyright © 2014 by Brenda Spahn and Irene Zutell. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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