Tuesday, October 15, 2013

My Testimony

My friend Beth from As He Leads is Joy asked about my testimony, so here goes:

I was raised in the Catholic Church during my younger elementary years. My mother grew up in a strict Catholic family. Her parents followed all the rules, including the no-birth-control rule, resulting in 14 total pregnancies for my grandmother, who raised ten children. Four babies passed away either in the womb or shortly after birth, in her mid- to late-forties.

Despite the strict religious upbringing, no one in my mother's family had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, of the ten children, none grew up to become Christians. Whether my grandmother was a Christian or not, I can't say for sure, but my guess is that no, she never truly trusted Jesus for her salvation.

My grandfather died when I was very young and I know very little about him, except that his later years were plagued by a very serious agoraphobia disorder. He was a critical, unloving man, according to my mother. She's never mentioned his spiritual make-up, so I assume it was similar to my grandmother's...all rules, no relationship.

The Catholic faith teaches that Jesus' death on the cross covers only original sin. Personal sins are paid for in Purgatory (place in Roman Catholic doctrine where souls remain until they have expiated their sins and can go to heaven). I consider Catholicism to be one of the good-works religions, in which one has to focus on being a good person, rather than on having a personal relationship with Jesus.

In recent years I read that about 30% of Catholics are truly born again. Perhaps this is the 30% who read the Bible? It's hard to say, but certainly some attend the Catholic Church while not believing everything it teaches. Many don't even understand official Catholic Doctrine, but still attend the church.

My mother began to date my father, a non-religious person whose mother was a Jehovah's Witness, in her late teens. Mom left Ohio at age 19 to move to California, where my father eventually pursued her and proposed. They married, despite a rocky relationship based on guilt.

My father went into the Air Force and when my mother was 22, she had my sister, and at 24, she had me. We were both born in Germany, and then moved to New York briefly, and then on to England when I was 3 and my sister was 5.

The marriage was dysfunctional due to my father's cheating. It lasted 8 years, after which my mother left my father and flew us to San Diego, California, where one of her sisters lived. We saw my father intermittently after the divorce, due to his military travel. When he settled in the High Desert of California, we saw him bimonthly.

My mother took us to the Catholic Church for a few more years, but she was extremely embittered over religion in general. The priest she saw in the confessional (to confess her divorce) told her the only way she could get to heaven would be to never remarry. My mother was 29 years old and had no college education, and she didn't have the gift of singleness. The priest's statement overwhelmed her and embittered her against all religion, and that hasn't changed (she's now 72).

As the years progress, her bitterness gets worse, which is very frightening to me. Scripture says the more times we reject Jesus, the harder our hearts become. Whether that's actually what's happening, I don't know.

It wasn't long after our First Holy Communion that she quit taking us to church, except for Easter and Christmas. She remarried when I was 6 years old, to a Navy man, and we were off again on overseas tours (Guam, Sicily) when we weren't living in San Diego, which was their favorite city. My step-father retired in San Diego, in fact, where I went to high school and college.

I went to the Catholic Church with a Catholic high school friend, intermittently, but it was her parent's religion, definitely not hers. My friend remains today, nonreligious, as do her three siblings. The Catholic Church, again, failed to impart any personal relationship with Jesus to these children, or to their parents. I don't remember that family ever opening the Bible.

I graduated from UCSD with a degree in Political Science and got engaged to a lawyer. After two years I called it off. We brought out the worst in each other, and he was Jewish and I was Catholic (at least in my mind, I was Catholic).

I was engaged to a Catholic man in my later twenties, and in retrospect I can tell you that the same thing was missing in his life--no personal relationship with Jesus Christ, no Bible reading, no real praying.

I broke that off shortly after becoming a teacher; by then, it was a long-distance relationship anyway, and he was taking forever to get through college. I had moved to the High Desert, almost 3 hours from San Diego, to live with my father and continue earning a teaching credential.

My Catholic fiance cared about whether I knelt down on the correct knee before going into a pew, but he never mentioned Jesus Christ, so it was doomed, with neither of us knowing anything about spiritual things, other than rules of conduct.

Rules without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, involving the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, mean nothing but frustration. Even the meaningful rules that Jesus really cared about, couldn't be realized in a life without the indwelling Holy Spirit, who is our Counselor and our Comforter.

I continued to go intermittently to the Catholic Church as a single teacher, but my relationship with "religion" was dominated by frustration. I knew I loved God, but I didn't know how to access Him. I didn't know what I was missing.

My principal and the two office secretaries were all Christians, and a few teachers in my school were as well. They prayed for me, and the main secretary tried witnessing to me, explaining that the Catholic Church did not teach a plan for salvation.

She told me one day that I had to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and that his death on the cross covered my sins. Without believing that, I couldn't get to Heaven, she went on to say.

I told her I had always believed both those things. No problem.

They continued praying.

My principal gave me More Than a Carpenter, a book about Jesus, but while I loved to read and would often read until 2 or 3 AM on the weekends, I never opened that particular book, before returning it a few months later. I loved my principal, a godly man, and I didn't want to lose his book, so I returned it.

They continued praying.

I dated a man after that Catholic relationship ended, and a year or so into the relationship, we ended up at a Calvary Chapel, but not near my home, as this was another long-distance relationship (60 minute drive one way). We both said the prayer of salvation in our seats, but nothing changed. No one discipled us or gave us a Bible, and we didn't have a desire to get one on our own; we were unchanged essentially. No hunger for the Word. We didn't understand what just happened, and we didn't know what we were missing.

I broke that relationship off, becoming uncomfortable with the man's recreational drinking, which I wanted no part of. Drinking occurred in my home growing up, and to me it was a recipe for dysfunction and heartbreak.

I returned to the Catholic Church after the break-up.

Finally, I became friends with a fellow first-grade instructor. She was very close to God and her life showed it, which wasn't really the case with the main secretary who tried to turn me away from the Catholic Church.

Being a widow, Phyllis was lonely and needed a friend, and I needed someone who had something spiritual that I was missing--a personal relationship with God that spilled over into every aspect of her life. This woman's faith wasn't just a weekend religious thing. The Lord was her life.

If we really want someone to come to Christ, we have to really love the Lord Jesus Christ and our love for Him must shine.

Phyllis's husband had committed suicide when they resided in Ohio, where she was a housewife and he was an engineer. After that horrific event she sold her home and moved to the California High Desert, to live with her brother and his wife, taking her teen-aged son with her. Her daughter was already in college at the time.

I met her after she had gotten back on her feet, gone back to college to pursue a teaching credential, and even battled ovarian cancer. She could not have her own children, but instead adopted two American infants in her early thirties. Not having children put her at risk for ovarian cancer.

After successfully fighting the cancer, she obtained a job as a first grade teacher at my school, which she did for a few years before becoming a reading resource specialist on our sight.

One day we were in the teacher's lounge, and Phyllis told me that her first grandbaby had contracted meningitis. I was amazed at her calmness...her faith...her peace in the midst of tragedy.

She flew that weekend to Ohio, where her son and his wife resided. The baby had to undergo an amputation, but it looked like he would make it.

Phyllis flew home, and then the baby worsened and passed away. Phyllis flew back for the funeral and was heartbroken, but her peace remained intact. To say I was amazed at this woman's peace was an understatement.

I wanted what she had.

Unfortunately, her son and his wife fell apart and in the next 18 months, divorced.

Neither Phyllis's adopted son or daughter have ever become Christians, partially because Phyllis became one after her marriage and the beginning of motherhood, and it's doubtful that her husband ever became one. Without the support and leading of a Christian father, it's very hard for children to adopt their mother's faith. Statistics show that children more often take their father's lead in spiritual things.

One day months after her grand baby's death, Phyllis went on a day trip to Big Bear Mountain with me, which was just 45 minutes from our High Desert town.

On the windy drive up the mountain, I told her how much I hated being 31 years old and still unmarried. I feared becoming an old maid. Any time I dated, I always found something wrong with the person after a year or so, and called off the relationship. I was discouraged and fearful about the future.

She kept saying, "That's not too big for God."

She listened some more, telling me, "Take that to God."

She said that multiple times, almost like a broken record, but gently spoken.

Never in my life did I pray any prayer that wasn't something like this: "Bless this person, God.  Bless that person, God." Along with your usual Hail Mary's and the Lord's Prayer.

None of my praying meant anything. It was little better than what the pagans do.

Right away, Phyllis knew what I was missing. She grew up in the Presbyterian church and never had a personal relationship with Jesus until adulthood, after she married. She explained what a personal relationship was and encouraged me to talk to God in my own words. She also explained what she was taught in the Presbyterian church: "You're okay. You'll get to heaven as long as you don't hurt anyone or commit horrible sins."

I don't remember being taught that same doctrine per se, but it's what I believed. Phyllis had to explain to me that no one is good enough to get to Heaven. No, not one. Not even Mother Theresa.

That was just the beginning.

I wasn't saved on that day, but it's the day my whole life turned around. I still can't think or write about it without huge tears. Someone had taken the time, finally, after all my years as a frustrated "religious" person/worldly person, to tell me what I was missing.

It seems like such a small thing, but it was huge. The difference between life and death. Peace and angst.

I can't pinpoint, as some can, the exact moment I became a Christian. I only remember that drive up a windy mountain and how it became my salvation, in a sense. No prayer of salvation was uttered, but God was faithful and in the next weeks and months, I changed.

Phyllis invited me and our first-grade aide to her house for a weekly Bible Study. She started us in Romans and it wasn't long before I was on fire for the Lord! I spent hours reading the Bible. Instead of continuing my love of classic literature, and staying up till all hours reading, I devoured the Bible for hours and listened to Christian radio exclusively.

I asked Phyllis tons of questions, day after day, during recesses, weekends, and on the phone. She discipled me for two years.

Phyllis attended an Assemblies of God church, but I could not go there with her for long. It made me very uncomfortable, so with her blessing, I began to attend a non-denominational mega church in the area--the same church my principal went to, as well as the school secretaries and a few other teachers on staff.

I was baptized soon after, and all the Christians on my staff attended. I'm sure they wondered: what took her so long? I began teaching there in 1992, and wasn't saved until 1997.

Two years after becoming a Christian, I met my husband on a singles' hike--an event set up by the singles group at our church. We met in early October and did things in groups for several months, not knowing the other was interested.

We were married the following July. Phyllis was one of my bridesmaids.

Thank you, Dear Father, for your faithfulness. Thank you, Jesus, for your sacrifice. Thank you, Phyllis, for your time and your obedience.

May we all take the time to explain the reason for our Hope...the reason for our Peace. May we pray for and befriend the unsaved, investing in their hearts and lives, for that's far more effective than anything else in escorting someone to the Throne of Grace.

May we keep reading our Bibles, and conversing with our Father, so that someone sees something in us that they simply must have for themselves.

We don't have to be perfect, just obedient, and the Holy Spirit does the rest.


Beth said...

Thank you so much for sharing that with us. I really enjoyed reading it and just seeing how God has worked in your life. I am so glad for Phyllis who shared the truth of God and how God is real to her.

Christine said...

This got pretty long, so thank you for making it to the end, Beth. :) It was a powerful experience for me, to write it out again.

Tesha Papik said...

Oh I loved getting to know you more through your testimony! It gives me so much hope to KEEP sharing Christ you just never know when it will change a life. Phyllis sounds like a wonderful woman and I am so touched to read how you were saved.

Amber said...

What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your past.
Nothing is too big for our Lord!