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Surely You Don’t Mean Me, Lord

In a tiny East Texas town, I stood before my eight 11th grade Sunday School students who were staring back at me with glassy eyes while I expounded on a lesson from Amos. It was at that moment I heard God whisper to me, “You have to do this.” 

Whaaaat??? This is the girl who never babysat. This is the girl who has a degree in accounting. This is the girl who said, “I’ll never be a teacher!” This is the girl who told her dear friend who loved substituting she was crazy. 

My initial response was, “Surely You don’t mean me, Lord!” Eventually, it became, “If You say so.”

I followed my crazy friend’s footsteps by starting out subbing and loving it too. Now I was also crazy. Next, I contacted the area college to see how to get my teaching certificate. I enrolled for the fall semester in the two classes I needed before I could do my student teaching that spring. In the summer before I enrolled in college, I had two close calls to begin teaching with an emergency certificate, but neither materialized. So off to college I went!

This girl was scared to death and so excited at the same time, because God had called me and I had stepped out in faith. The plan was coming together beautifully. Until…

There was a phone call my husband made to buy some used electronic equipment for the plant he worked for from a plant in Louisiana. Did he know anyone looking for an electrical supervisor position? Maybe? The trip to pick up the equipment included an impromptu job interview. I’d only been in college a month when his job opportunity came. Now what?

God was leading us to move in a few short months, before I could finish the semester for preparing for His call on my life and too late to get a tuition refund. Why did He put a kink in what seemed like a perfect plan? I was subbing on the days I wasn’t attending my college classes and loving it.  I was a shoe in for getting a job for the next school year. Didn’t I do everything in my power to obey God’s call?

Instead of being a college student and substitute teacher, I began preparing for a move that was not in my plan. Finding a place to live close enough to my husband’s new job proved difficult. The one place we could find had a horrible school situation for our children, but I had heard of a Christian school and checked it out.

From the time I arrived in the reception office, I felt at home at this school. There were hot pink “Moms In Touch” prayer group brochures on the counter. Everyone was so helpful and made me feel hopeful. Not only did my children have a wonderful Christian school available, they needed me to sub and my degree was enough to be able to teach there the next year.

God really did have an excellent plan in Louisiana that was so much better than what I thought it was supposed to be in Texas. Be flexible, Cheryl!

Meanwhile, the house in Texas didn’t sell. We rented it to our church’s education and youth minister for almost a year. We had little cash to get into a new house, but the rent house wasn’t where my sweetheart wanted to live. He wanted to live in the piney woods further north, so I painstakingly searched for a house in that area. Keep in mind that I had found the perfect school for the kids and me where we were living. Didn’t my husband understand God’s obvious plan for us?

After finding an adequate home for us to buy, I mentioned to our school superintendent one day at church that we were moving north. I was shocked and disappointed to hear they had a campus near there and had two teacher openings for the next year. I didn’t want to leave our new town. It seemed like a perfect place for us. Why did my husband have to be close to pine trees? Why would God move us away, set up a great situation, then make us move almost an hour away six months later?

I remover driving north on the interstate to handle business for the move, crying and singing along with a Twila Paris song on the radio, “Do I trust You, Lord, when I don’t know why?” 

It was easy to say “yes” to becoming a teacher. It was easy to say “yes” to moving to Louisiana for my husband’s wonderful job opportunity. It was easy to say “yes” to a Christian school for the kids and me. 

It was SO HARD to say “yes” to starting over again. But I did it! I had to trust God and my husband, even when everything inside of me was screaming “NO!”

This girl who loved Jesus taught 1st grade to 24 precious students with a degree in accounting and lots of faith that the Master Teacher would show me how to be a teacher. My daughter had been in 1st grade the year before, so I was familiar with the curriculum. I loved those kids and was determined that they wouldn’t suffer just because I had never taught school before and didn’t have an education degree. I had never been so exhausted in my life, but it was a successful year. 

By May, I felt like a total failure as a wife and mother. School took so much out of me, partially because I felt the need to go way above anyone’s expectations to prove I was good enough without a teaching certificate. Every time someone told me how good a teacher I was, I felt the sting of the enemy’s fiery darts because of how much my family had been neglected. 

I quit. Told my principal I wouldn’t be back the next year. She asked how she could help. It was too late. I never asked for help at all that year, though I was drowning under the weight of my unrealistic expectations of myself. Everyone said the second year is better, but I couldn’t take that chance. She said she had seen real leadership qualities in me and had felt I would be the one to eventually take her place. I was shocked and flattered, but no job was worth sacrificing my family. God had someone else in mind, I was sure.

Apparently, I had misunderstood what God had asked me to do with my life. Or maybe the timing was wrong. I didn’t really know what to make of this mess, but I was sure God was at work. 

That next school year, I managed to get a grip on my home life, attended a daytime ladies Bible study, and subbed in either the classroom or cafeteria at school. I missed being at school all the time, but I enjoyed not being so stressed and burned out. Ladies at church didn’t seem to want to sing cute songs with motions. Part of me was craving being with kids and fulfilling the call I believed I received. What was I supposed to do?

My certified, experienced, mature, pastor’s daughter replacement seemed fabulous at first, and our son was in her class. Then things began unraveling. One of the boys in the class was constantly being picked on by her. The students were way behind in the curriculum. Principal observations went well, but not much teaching was going on when no one was looking. My son came home crying many days, saying how mean she was. It was a hard time, and I felt so guilty.

Eventually, I was asked to help with an improvement plan. I was to observe her for a week, teach with her observing me for a week, then observe her again for a week. Reluctantly, I agreed, putting my ability to tangibly love my enemies to test. Afterwards, nothing really changed, but she did enough to keep her job. A personal matter brought about her resignation in January.

Next, they asked me to take over the traumatized classroom just until a replacement could be found. They needed a lot of love and to catch up academically. I agreed to fill in temporarily. The first day I was back in the classroom, I knew I had to stay. Those precious kids needed me and I needed them. After talking it over with my husband, he agreed I could come back if I didn’t let it drive me crazy and have to work all weekend. 

With more realistic expectations and writing  my lesson plans on Thursday nights, I was back where I belonged. They were such a sweet class, and I loved leading them in silly songs with hand motions. I was doing God’s plan HIS WAY instead of mine, and it led to so much joy!

My principal retired and I ended up taking her place. Our little campus was turned over to a local church a few years later and most of us moved back to the campus where the kids and I began. Once again, I was in the classroom, but taught 4th this time. In my 40s, I was required to complete my masters in education for our accreditation and state approval. I was put back into a leadership position again as I prepared to graduate. God blessed me so much during more than twenty years in Christian education. 

God did mean me when He called an accountant who was a stay-at-home mother to become a teacher. It was quite a roller coaster ride to get there, but I really did have to do this. And He was faithful to walk with me all the way.

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My Mother-In-Love

This essay was written in memory of my mother-in-love, Ann Neiswender, as an entry for an audition for the 2016 Baton Rouge Listen To Your Mother show. As it turns out, I ended up in the cast of the New Orleans show instead. To watch me read to a live audience, click here and the essay is below. I was very privileged to have a mother-in-law who treated me as a daughter. It was a humbling experience to be part of the #LTYMNO show, as well. 

                  

What comes to your mind when you think of your husband’s mother? As my school nurse in elementary school, my future mother-in-law gave me no impression things would go well for our relationship. “Nice Nurse” was skeptical of any student’s claim to have an illness, and I was a frequent customer because of my desperate need to be nurtured.  Being pretty hard-nosed was part of her strategy of separating those who were truly sick from those who were aspiring hypochondriacs. Let’s just say we didn’t get off to a good start.

A few years later, I met her son after marching band practice. He was a tall, dark, and handsome senior drummer who was interested in this petite freshman trombone player. The night of our first date was my first interaction with Marty’s Mom since fifth grade. On that October evening, my family was out of town, and I forgot my key inside the house. I went to my great-grandmother’s house down the street to get ready. Realizing that Marty wouldn’t know where to pick me up, I gave him a call. I was mortified when my old school nurse answered the phone! Girls didn’t call guys back then.

Eventually, she invited me for dinner and to help decorate their Christmas tree. It was their family tradition to cut down a fresh tree and hang ornaments while listening to Christmas carols. This was foreign to me, since my mother always decorated our silver and blue tree. Marty’s Mom cherished family time and passed on the legacy to her son and his younger sister. I began to see past the school nurse façade and have an insight into her love of family. She jokingly asked Marty about me that night, “Why’d you have to pick the runt of the litter?”                  

Far from being on the cover of Southern Living, Marty’s Mom’s home was actually a cozy two-bedroom, one-bath rent house, where the table was in the kitchen so the dining room could be used as her bedroom. She just loved having her kids at home, even if it meant allowing us to glue Astroturf to the floor of Marty’s flat-bottom boat in her modest living room. I was always welcomed in her home, and it became a refuge for me, since my home life was so unpredictable.

I hadn’t been on many family vacations, so I was beside myself when Marty’s Mom asked me to join them on a trip to Colorado the next summer. Her gracious offer was based on advice from his father, since Marty didn’t want to be away from me for a week. It was wonderful to learn some of his mother’s traveling traditions, like eating roadside picnic lunches, feasting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with cherry Kool-Aid, and having a breakfast of Chips Ahoy cookies dipped in milk.  Though she was a single mom without a lot of money, she sure made this trip feel like a dream family vacation to me.

Marty and I were engaged in January of my senior year in high school. His mother was part of the planning from the beginning, helping me choose a china pattern and start my recipe collection. I remember Marty’s Mom giving me a book called Letters to Karen, which was written for a future daughter-in-love. That’s what she called me. She helped us find our first rent house and got us started financially until we could get our own credit cards.  I remember her keeping a running tab of what we had charged and what we had paid on the side of the refrigerator. She was generous, but taught us responsibility.

Once grandchildren arrived, lots of love and plenty of time gave her the means to be a Nana extraordinaire. Being a firm believer that our marriage should always come first, she made the trip to our home, from one to eventually three hours away, so we had date nights and time alone. Every summer, she would keep our kids for a week for swimming lessons and a week for her church’s Bible school. They loved being treated like royalty, with a Nana who fixed their favorite meals; even counting the Brussel sprouts to be sure they were equal. Nana was her name and spoiling all of us was her game.

Nana shopped all year for the perfect Christmas and birthday presents. She delighted in secretly gathering lots of little items for our Christmas stockings and Easter baskets, as well. She enjoyed surprising us with “love gifts” of whatever she thought we might love or find useful, delivered in person or through the mail. When visiting, she brought supper for that night and two frozen meals for the future. Promptly, she would change a diaper, empty a dishwasher, or fold a load of multiplying laundry.

Of all the things Nana did for me through the 40+ years I knew her, the best one occurred when I was 29 and a stay-at-home mother of two toddlers. My life had become unmanageable because of my reactions to hurtful childhood memories that had resurfaced. One day while visiting us, she gave me a book by Lloyd Ogilvie, Enjoying God. Ogilvie had spoken at their church, and she felt his message would help me in my despair. By chapter three, I had my answer…”You are loved, now.” God used Nana to let me know, and I’m eternally grateful.

My mother-in-love passed away into the gracious, loving arms of her Savior in December 2014. We miss her every day. She put raising her children ahead of pursuing her own happiness and sometimes felt so lonely because of her choices. Sometimes she was even bitter and resentful about her life.  She wasn’t perfect and could be very critical at times. Despite these flaws, she did one thing with reckless abandon. She loved. She loved her God, her children, her grandchildren, her church, and her friends. She loved sacrificially. She showed us through her life that love never fails.
                            


 

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She (And Dance) Lifted Me Up

Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. That’s what happened on June 24, 2016. A treasured icon of Huntsville, Texas passed away at 90 years old, leaving a legacy of young ladies and “old” ladies (like me) who were inspired by her life, love, and work. She was salt and light in a bland and dim world because of her kindness, integrity, and passion. Most likely, I’m not the only one who has been contemplating Faye Burns’ impact on my life since hearing the sad news.

So, I’m a pretty forgetful 55-year-old woman, but precious memories of Mrs. Burns began to flood my mind (her scrumptious Martha Washington Fudge, for example) while I was praying for her daughter, Terri, and the rest of the family grieving their loss. I realized that God had placed her in my life at the perfect time by allowing me to take dance and life lessons from her for 7 years. Until now, I had never pondered how different it would have been without Mrs. Burns taking me under her wings. Honestly, what I learned from her prepared me for all of my future accomplishments. 

Although I don’t remember how it happened, I started taking dance lessons at Faye Burns Dance Studio in 3rd grade. I’m sure my Mom made some pretty significant sacrifices to afford my lessons and all that goes with them, and I’m so grateful. Mrs. Burns’ dance studio was in her garage at that time. I loved my weekly dance lessons, and she allowed me to come observe the other, more advanced classes on the days my class met. Because dance was so exciting to me, I was able to memorize all the dances by just watching them practice. How many dance teachers would allow that?

Mrs. Burns saw my enthusiasm and moved me up from the beginning classes to intermediate to advanced with her daughter, Terri and the others who were my age had been dancing since they were three. She rewarded my hard work and encouraged me by giving me more opportunities to grow. My last year in dance, I had my first teaching job with her 3-year-old class. Success gave me more confidence, and I finally found myself in a world where I could excel. Whether she realized it or not, her belief in me was just exactly what I needed.

Basically taking me on to raise from the time I got out of school until Mom got off work, Mrs. Burns treated me like a daughter. I was from a broken home and it was the late 1960s, but I never felt out of place in her home or studio. There was no judgment, only love and acceptance. Most of my best friends came through relationships developed through dance. Of course, there were weekend and summer sleepovers, weekend trips, and going to church with the family. With her as a mentor, I was lifted up from my helplessness and given the chance to soar above my circumstances.

Because Mrs. Burns loved taking her students to dance conventions, I was able to travel to Houston, Dallas, New Orleans, and Denver, stay at the best hotels, and learn routines from some of the best professional dancers. We didn’t have much money to spare, but she somehow worked it out with my Mom to allow me to go on all the trips. And it wasn’t all business when we went new places, either. She always made sure we did some sight seeing, too. I never go to Colorado or New Orleans without remembering that my first time to see both places was with Mrs. Burns.

My story of dance lifting me up is one of many that could be told about Faye Burns. She had a ministry to children that used her fabulous dancing, teaching, and choreography skills to train girls (and a few guys) to move with grace and confidence for the rest of their lives. I just wish I had realized all of this while she was still alive and had a chance to thank her. What I can do is allow God to use me to be salt and light to those in my sphere of influence, like Mrs. Burns did for me and so many others. 

                                                                        

                                                                                        Clydia Faye Burns Obituary
Linked with Suzanne Eller’s #LiveFreeThursday

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Always Believe and Never Say Never

Have you ever said never? Here’s my list:

1) I’ll never have a child with a December birthday. I hated having a December birthday.

2) I’ll never be a teacher. I didn’t like being around kids.

3) I’ll never live in Louisiana. It’s too swampy.

4) I’ll never have three kids. There’s always an odd man out and two against one.

Boy does God have a great sense of humor when it comes to all my nevers. I was unknowingly shaking my fist at God, saying, “I know what’s best and that’s how it’s gonna be!” True to His nature as my loving Heavenly Father, He gave me what was for my own good and His glory.

What do all my nevers have to do with my relationship with God? Living in a very disfunctional environment most of my years growing up, I have compensated by having compulsive control issues. To always believe I can rest in God’s perfect plan is a challenge for me. 

Because God has shown Himself faithful in redeeming all my nevers from the past, I have learned it’s best to never say never. His provision for me is much better than crazy ideas I have for what I don’t want. Here’s how God chose to reveal Himself in my nevers:

1) Five years after we were married, my husband and I brought home the most adorable little girl, born the day before my 25th birthday, wrapped in a Christmas stocking. Though we have never been able to have a pool party, Sarah and I celebrate our birthdays from Thanksgiving through Christmas each year. Best never God gave me ever!

2) Though I wouldn’t listen to my husband’s Aunt Molly and get my teaching certificate “just in case,” I ended up getting the call to teach in an 11th grade Sunday School class. Looking at those eight pairs of eyes with their blank stares didn’t keep me from sensing God whisper,”You’ve gotta do this!” Never looked back after that day, spending twenty years in Christian education.

3) OK, I’ll admit the l-o-n-g drive from the border of Texas to the border of Mississippi along I-10 through Louisiana leaves much to be desired, but a bit north of there there were pine trees like we had in East Texas and a fabulous job opportunity for my husband. Now, almost 25 years later, we have fallen in love with our state where we were called, as my late mother-in-love always said, as foreign missionaries. 

4) A short 14 months after our December baby was born, we received our “gift of God,” Matthew. He was the second and last child born to us, so we never had three children. I still wonder if one might end up at our doorstep in a basket one day, but I believe God has extended me grace on this last never. Despite us not having three children to raise, we have many other children we think of as our own, from our neighborhoods, my classrooms, our children’s friends, even some of our employees.

So, what do we do with those pesky nevers we have declared?  Can we just be honest and say that most of them are made in fear? Can we confess that to God? What if He allows them to come true and redeems them? What if He extends grace and they never come true? Either way, we can let go and let God be in control. Thy will be done!

The Director of my story knows best. By the grace of God, I will choose to always believe and never say never. 

Linking up with Suzanne Eller’s Live Free Thursday.

 #livefreethursday

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Oops! I Did It Again!

Worry, worry, worry…rehearsing over and what’s wrong and how I think it should be fixed. Just like a hamster running around and around on a wheel going nowhere, here I am doing it again myself. As though there is no God and I am the queen of my universe. If only…

Why doesn’t God do something?

Why won’t they listen to me?

Why do I fall for the same old tricks again?

In my former life, I was an accountant. My favorite subject in college was auditing. You know, being the white collar detective to find out what’s wrong, what’s out of order. The unpopular ability to be able to spot what’s wrong a mile away. It’s a blessing when you’ve been summoned to solve the mystery, but it is more of a curse when it’s used to be the great fixer.

When I easily spot what’s wrong, I forget to be thankful for what’s right. When I get the big idea I can fix what’s out of order, I forget Who’s God and who’s not. When I offer my unsolicited help, I forget that it’s often hurtful to those I love. 

How can I possibly move past my obsession with trying to be in control? How can focusing on the negative be turned into an attitude of thankfulness? How can the ability to spot problems go from being judgmental to being an intercesser?

There’s only one way to get a better perspective. Worship God for Who He is! 

Worship lifts me out of my circumstances, because it’s all about God and not about me anymore. It reminds me that God is in control. It relieves me of the feeling that I must carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. It refreshes my faith that I can trust God to do what is best.

Sometimes, it’s putting on worship music. Sometimes, it’s spending some time in Psalms. Sometimes, it’s saying things like “Thy will be done.” Sometimes, it’s thanking Him for what is wrong and how He’s going to use it for good. 

Even though I fall short, and have an “Oops!I did it again!” moment, all I have to do is stop fretting and start worshipping the One who is worthy of all my praise. 

Suzie Eller #livefreeThursday

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One Thousand Gifts Meets 10,000 Reasons

Suddenly, while we were singing Matt Redman’s song, “10,000 Reasons” in a Sunday worship service, God whispered into my heart a crazy idea. At the time, I was serving as our church school’s assistant principal and elementary director. During that time, this song was the students’ favorite worship song, and they sang it so fervently that it brought tears to the eyes of all the adults. They especially loved stomping their feet three times at the end of each verse before the words “…10,000 reasons…” were sung.

In January, I had finally begun to read Ann Voskamp’s book and devotional, One Thousand Gifts, which were a gift from the Christmas a year before. The premise of the books were taking what Ann called a “Love Dare” to write down three things  each day in a thanks journal. While I was singing “10,000 Reasons” in church that spring, the two titles collided in my mind. I realized that our darling students, though they loved singing the song, they had no idea what it meant.

“10,000 Reasons”

You know, it’s a difficult feat getting young people to be thankful for what they have these days. With smart phones being purchased for younger and younger children, elaborate birthday parties that compete for excessiveness, and narcissistic social media behavior being the norm, it goes against the grain of our culture to be content and appreciative for what money cannot buy and not constantly seeking more to fill our insatiable desires.

At the next elementary teacher meeting, the crazy idea was pitched and I solicited the help of the teachers as to how we could help the students connect having 10,000 reasons to be thankful. Many ideas were pitched, and all of them were onboard to help students have a more concrete idea of the abstract words in the song. My plan was for the students to come up with 10,000 gifts from God that made their hearts sing by the last chapel of the year.

Deciding that strips of colored construction paper with five things to be thankful for on each strip would be linked together for that final chapel, the teachers took their assignment and encouraged the students to take on the task. The youngest pre-kindergarten students had to dictate to their teachers, while the oldest fifth graders made the most thankful strips.

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It came down to the wire as the last chapel date approached. Teachers stapled their classes’ chains together and hung them in their classrooms. Students were learning to spot small things to be thankful for at recess, in their classrooms, and at home. Would there be 10,000 reasons gathered in time?

Anticipation filled the gym as each class of students filed in and took their seats in the bleachers. The revealing of how many “reasons” would come before the final song, their favorite song of the year by popular vote. We worked to staple the chain of links from each class, which eventually wrapped around the gym. Links were tallied and they added up to 13,830 reasons for our hearts to sing a song of thanks to God. Everyone held up a part of the huge rainbow chain and sang to the top of their lungs, “10,000 Reasons” as the close of chapel.

That day, they understood what the song really meant. We don’t need more stuff to be grateful, we just need to look around and see how much we already have to give thanks to our amazingly gracious God. Maybe, just maybe, this may be the secret to living a life that’s fulfilling without trying to fill up our lives with stuff.

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This blog post is linked up for #livefreeThursday with Suzanne Eller

 

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No Longer a “Bubble Girl”

What was meant to be my protection actually numbed me from experiencing any feelings at all. This “bubble girl” had an unpenatrable outside barrier that kept me “safe” from being harmed by anyone, but it isolated me from true relationships.

Why did I finally feel the need to break free from the bondage of never letting people get too close…to see the real me…to trust again? 

It was so lonely in that bubble. I seemed too good to be true to those who thought they knew me. Friends and family didn’t think they could be real with me, since I had this facade of perfection. Who can trust their deepest struggles with one who acts like she has none?

My bubble was control. If I could control my feelings, my influences, my circumstances, I’d never be hurt again. As I am learning, this type of response is typical for one growing up in an alcoholic home. Control feels safe, but it’s really a prison of ones own making. Like John Travolta’s character in the 1976 movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble, I needed to shield myself from harm, even if it meant isolation.

                                                                               
To protect myself, I tried to please everyone. Sometimes, that meant being so cautious that I wouldn’t speak truth, even if it would have been helpful. My automatic response was to keep peace at all costs. Part of that cost was striving imperfectly at perfection and failing miserably. Another hefty payment was paid by those closest to me, since they didn’t feel comfortable being vulnerable with one who seemed to have it all together. 

Unfortunately, everyone loses when I choose to remain in my bubble. I know I’m a fraud. My feelings, good and bad just get stuffed, so I’m not really living. My friends and family feel alienated and try to shield me from their shortcomings. And where is God in this equation?

Trust is a big deal to me. I guess it’s because of the trauma I faced as a child, and I felt abandoned and alone in my shame. I didn’t even feel I could trust God. Relationships are based on trust, and it just didn’t seem like it was worth the risk to be let down once again.

God didn’t relent on His pursuit of me, though. He sent me a man to show me that someone could know the real me, the imperfect me, and still love and take care of me. He sent me a daughter and son who whittled away at my false image of perfection and gave me an understanding of what unconditional love means. And, when I was at the end of myself, God swooped in to rescue me from that ridiculous bubble I had constructed and covered me in the shadow of His wings. 

Because of God’s unfailing love, I can be real. I can admit my mistakes and talk about my painful past without being driven to despair. I can be free to love. I can be approachable. I can give hope to others who are trapped in their own bubbles.

Oh, every now and then, I am tempted to lock myself away in that deceiving bubble that promises safety. It’s still difficult to do or say something that might “rock the boat.” When it’s too painful or frightening to deal with a new situation or resurrected memory, I must resist that urge to withdraw and let God redeem yet another crisis for His glory. Praise God, I’m no longer a “bubble girl!”

#livefreeThursday