“If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.” –Psalm 139:9-10
Six years ago, these were the words I read over and over every single day. And I had no idea who I was reading about. I read these words over and over because “Psalm 139” was written on a sympathy card in a list of other Bible verses, and these two particular verses struck me the most in my situation at the time.
I was a widow at 25. I had a five-month old baby girl, my husband had just been killed in Iraq, and I felt like death. I wanted death, but I didn’t want death because I didn’t know where death went. I didn’t know where Tell went. I had to take care of my little Ava. And then these words:
“If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”
Maybe those evenings crumpled on the floor beside my bed reading this over and over weren’t really about God. Or at least they might not have been to me at that time. I wanted Tell’s right hand to hold me. But they are about God. He is about Himself, and He was revealing Himself to me in that mess.
I grew up in a fog of confusion. My childhood years were wrought with pain, abuse, divorce,
[caption id="attachment_736" align="alignright" width="225"] Jessica and her daughter Ava[/caption]
moving, stepparents, and anger. Religion was irrelevant. “The church burned us,” my mom would say. My dad moved to Florida, which is cool except we lived in South Dakota learning how to be cowboys. My mom married a cowboy, and this cowboy said in regards to any questions about church or God, “I don’t need anyone telling me what to do.” Well, as a thirteen year old, neither did I. “Good point,” I thought. ”I don’t think I need you telling me what to do either,” I said to my parents. And so began years of living a life completely distorted by sin. I ran as fast as I could into any and all types of godless behavior.
When I did think about God, which was rare because I hadn’t really ever heard about Him, I only thought about the church. How people that went to church looked like they had it all together, and in my mind, that meant a house without screaming, discontentment, and dog hair. It meant a family that ate together and actually enjoyed being together. Oh, I wanted that. And then when I was 21 and almost finished with nursing school, I met Tell. He was kind, he was encouraging, he was handsome, and he liked me. Me! I had dove in and out of destructive relationships for five years, and here I meet someone who didn’t mind my messy history. He liked, no, he loved, every thing about me including all my mistakes and messed up past. So we married. And we lived and laughed and had the smiles I missed growing up. But I was still aching for that squeaky clean feeling I was sure all churchy people had. Tell had grown up in church and thought it would be a great idea to “get back to that,” as he had put it in a letter from one deployment as an Army infantryman in Afghanistan.
So I tried out some churches. But because my mind was on earthly things not on the things above and because my life wasn’t hidden in Christ with God (Col. 3:2-3), church meant an outward appearance of goodness. I hadn’t heard the gospel yet. I had no idea that the name I spoke in vain was the name above all names; I didn’t know that my Creator was about to draw me to my knees, where I would cry out to Him to take control. And that I would agree, indeed, “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18).
Tell died on a Monday, thousands of miles away from me in Baghdad, Iraq. I went to church the following Sunday and sobbed, drinking in His perfect love with a thirst that could not be quenched. I felt like if I took my eyes off of God I would sink into despair unimaginable. Someone had told me that if I prayed to God that I couldn’t do it, couldn’t even breathe on my own, that He would do it for me. So I prayed in long sobs, tears, and pain in my chest that made it hard to even hold my daughter. The next few months are hard for me to recall. Thinking on it, there was a lot of crying, remembering, confusion, and frustration in being thrust into a life I didn’t know how to live. We continued to go to church, Ava and I, and I continued to hunger after something I wasn’t sure how to find. I had a deep sense that God was purposeful in allowing Tell to die, and for some strange reason, I knew it was good. It was a strange time. I wanted to know more about who God was, who his Son was, and know more about how to be righteous, but at the same time, my habits of bitterness, selfishness, pride, and arrogance were always prowling to gain a foothold.
And then I met Rhodes. Rhodes was also a soldier. In fact, he was in the same accident that killed Tell, only he survived with some hardware now permanently in place in his shoulder. The first thing that struck me about Rhodes was that he asked a blessing over his food at a restaurant. Not such a big deal, except we were in a group of about 16 soldiers; the others did not do such a thing. I instantly wanted to know more about to whom he felt confident enough to pray to in the middle of a big crowd of war-weary men.
Thus began a friendship, which led to a relationship. I consistently feel like this particular season of my life was the uphill march on the road to freedom. The Lord protected me in many ways during this time as He drew me out of the fog of confusion in sin, guilt, grief, and anger. It is so clear to me now that He was using Rhodes as an example of the humility, selflessness, kindness, and love that Christ exemplified for us in His life on earth. During this time, I began to really become aware of my sin and that my outward appearance, no matter how I dressed it up, would not save me before a holy God. Without either of us really knowing it, Rhodes was discipling me, and it was messy at times, hard, and tear-stricken as I wrestled with my own sin and guilt, finally agreeing that “God made us alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us…This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13-14). Looking back, I realize that one of the things about Tell that drew me to him the most was his acceptance of me in my mess; I was drawn to Rhodes because he carefully and tenderly loved me in my anguished grief and messy past. But the most beautiful thing about this is that the Lord used them to show me that the ultimate love in Christ is that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
For Part 2 of Jessica's story, click here.