The first week of December brought a milestone for our family: the 10th anniversary of our move to Livingston County. We’ve been married 18 1/2 years, so we can now say we’ve lived somewhere over half our marriage and honestly, I didn’t know if that would ever be something we’d be able to say. We moved six times in the first ten years, and once more since then. And our time in LivCo has seen three houses and two churches, so even the last ten years here have seen their share of change. But ten years in one geographic area is still something we weren’t sure we’d experience, and so for this girl who lived in the same house until she was 18, and the same city until she was 23, I definitely think it’s something to commemorate.
December 2008 brought us to Livingston County, KY, full of hope that our hardest days were about to give way to the life we’d once dreamed of, in what we longed for to be “our place.” We’d just gone through three very difficult years of three failed ministry experiences, being members of five churches in three years, two moves (not counting the move to KY), taking on our first mortgage only to face unemployment six months later, and two years of Clay working mad hours killing bugs and watching his dreams die along with them. And yet, look what God had done. We had given up all hope of finding another ministry job for Clay, settled into life in an exterminator’s family and finally plugged into a healthy church family, when out of the blue Clay got a phone call asking if he’d be interested in coming to a tiny town in West KY to serve on staff at a church. We said yes, and headed back to the bluegrass. We’d just added baby four to our family and things were finally looking up.
Well, our difficult days of course were not over, as anyone who continues to live in this fallen world could probably have predicted. And that town and that church did not end up being “our place” like we’d hoped it would. We’re now nearing the end of year 5 in a different town, different church, in the same county and time will tell if this place is really “our place”–the place where we will stay for years and put down roots and build a lifetime ministry.
But even though all our dreams haven’t come true, and we have no way of knowing what will happen in the future, ten years in West KY is still a significant milestone and worthy of contemplation and reflection over what God has done and the paths He has made for us to walk.
I think there are three areas in which the hand of God has pressed in and worked and refined my thinking and my heart and my beliefs in the most profound and significant ways during these ten years, the first being through our family. We had left KY in 2006 as a family of four, and we came back to KY in 2008 as a family of six. We had four kids age five and under and had just barely begun our homeschool adventure, being halfway through kindergarten with our oldest. In the last ten years, our family has increased by two more, and our schoolroom is now full of six students and it’s our baby who is now halfway through kindergarten. We also have loved three other babies that I carried but never got to hold, joining the one we had lost before moving here, and forever leaving their mark on my life. Watching God’s grace and mercy through both euphoric joys and bitter providences in the life of our family has been one of the single most changing influences in my life. I have had to lean on Him, lean into Him, come face to face with my own ugly failures, experience the exposing of the darkest corners of my heart, and wrestle through areas of unbelief I didn’t even know existed as He has led me along the path called motherhood. Everything from trusting him for our family size, to obeying Him in educating our children the way He directed, to fighting to find my identity in Him instead of in being a mom, to the heavy realization that I come up short as a mom every single day, to grieving the lives that He took so soon, to struggling to believe He is still good after taking them–He has forced me over and over again to face the fact that I am not enough, I have no strength on my own, I have no wisdom of my own, and I cannot do this on my own. The beautiful truth and hope of that repetitive process of coming to the end of myself is that when I do, He is there. He loves my children even more than I do, and shocking truth–He loves me as well, more than I think I really understand. And His love, His sufficiency, His strength, His wisdom, and His power have shown brightly through my darkest moments. He has used the roller coasters of the last ten years in our family life to bring me to greater heights and depths of His love.
Another area of life that He has used to expose my own weaknesses and show me more of Himself over the last ten years is the church. Our ministry experiences on the whole throughout our marriage can be summed up in the word “difficult” and our West KY years are no exception. To be clear, not every moment or every aspect has been difficult–we’ve made some sweet memories, had some wonderful experiences, and grown to love some genuine believers who are very dear to us. But we’ve also experienced quite a bit of heartbreak and disillusionment along the way. I have had to really fight at times to find love and compassion for the church, to not grow bitter over things that were said and done, and to not want to beg my husband to give up and look into that exterminating job once more. But God has been so gracious, and every time I have wanted to give up and turn my back on His bride, He has reminded me both of His love for her, and of the fact that I am just as sinful and ugly as the people who have hurt us. It has sometimes taken a Herculean effort to physically walk into the doors. I can’t describe what it feels like to walk through a parking lot packed with cars that haven’t parked at that church in months or even years, in order go into a business meeting full of people who unplugged from the church months ago or were never really plugged in at all but their names happen to be on the membership list and they’ve been told they need to come tonight to stop this pastor or this youth pastor from doing whatever it is he’s trying to do, even if that means he may lose his job and his family may be out of a home. Unfortunately, we’ve walked that dreadful walk more than once in the past ten years. But God walked it with us, and He walked us back home afterwards and held us as we cried out our frustrations and hurt and grief over what His bride can do at times. Through the ups and downs of our years of ministry in West KY, most of the rose color has been stripped from my glasses and I’ve developed a cynicism that requires constant vigilance and stamping down lest it creep in and take hold, but I’ve also been reminded over and over that Christ bought the church with His own blood. He died for her, and He is making her into a spotless bride, and I exist within that community of a bride, and if that bride is worth such a costly sacrifice, she is worth my sacrifice as well. There were moments when I wanted to give up on the church, and honestly, those moments still come. But He hasn’t let me, and He has taken a superficial love for the church–a warm fuzzy love for the people who raised me and grew up with me and were kind and good to me and loved me back–and is changing that into a deep, fierce, fighting love for the church as Christ’s bride. A love that sees the church in her ugliness and sees that she’s worth the fight. This is not me–this is Christ in me, and it’s evidence of His work in my life and how He fights for me as well, as part of His bride.
The final area of my life in which God has worked to refine me the most over the past 10 years is in my marriage. Married 8 1/2 years when we moved here, the honeymoon stage existed only in memories and photo albums and souvenirs of dried rose petals and mushy Hallmark cards given for no reason except we were feeling starry-eyed that day. We’d walked through hard times in church and work and grief and life. We knew what it was to live with the consequences of each other’s sin. But God’s grace was still shining bright in our relationship. We were as in love as ever, and best friends besides. And that has not changed. Our relationship has grown only stronger, but it has grown stronger through the fire. Living with someone day in and day out makes it impossible to not bump into their sin along the way. His sin has affected me, my sin has affected him. But love covers a multitude of sin. And God has been so merciful to lead us to love each other in ways that have been healing, cleansing, freeing, and empowering. I have always been performance driven and craved approval, feeling like I have to measure up to a certain standard to be loved and accepted. This creates a natural tendency to be extremely afraid of honest confession of sin. But in this marriage, it’s hard to hide sin for very long. And here’s what I have seen–when I am at my ugliest, Clay loves me anyway. Because he’s proven that over and over and over, I am finally starting to feel safe in confessing my sin instead of trying to hide it for fear that it will cause him to run. This has worked wonders in my heart, and the most significant way is in the fact that it has pointed me back to Christ, who loves me more fully and unconditionally than Clay ever could, and that in spite of knowing every secret thought and sin–even the ones I can successfully hide from my husband. Clay has represented Christ to me and it has changed me. And God has used me to do the same for him, working in me to offer forgiveness to him for the sins that hurt me most deeply, granting him to freedom to be honest in a safe place, knowing that love would meet him there. It is Christ in Clay that is able to forgive me; it is not his own strength. And it is Christ in me that is able to forgive him; it is not my own strength. And this dance of sin and forgiveness and love and freedom has taught me so much about how Christ loves and forgives me. We are now 18 1/2 years married, and the girl who couldn’t see how she could love her groom more than she did on the day she married him is learning the beautiful truth that fire and forgiveness over time grow love into a flame she could never have imagined.
It’s possible to squeeze a lot of life into ten years. The heartaches, joys, adventures, experiences, and lessons of our last ten years in West KY have been exhilarating, agonizing, eye-opening, life-changing, and exhausting. But they all have served to show me so much more of Christ than I had ever seen before, and for that, I wouldn’t trade a thing. Looking back over pictures from the last ten years has been a sweet walk this morning, and as I look at each one I see the work God was doing around and through those moments. How grateful I am for His work in me, and in us, over these last 10 years. I have no way of knowing if the roads I’ll walk in the next 10 years will still be in West KY, but I am confident of this: that He will walk with me wherever He leads. And in that, I rejoice.