As part of my ministry with my husband, Roger, in the Damascus Road Church of God we founded, I often tried to help those who were going through very traumatic times: loss of livelihood, grave illness, incarceration, deaths of loved ones. These were people in poverty and misery. Some were homeless, some were in prison. I was genuine in my desire to help, and dedicated to doing so, but I was naïve in my understanding of the deep, deep pain they were going through. Up to this point, my life had been generally blessed and without tragedy, although as a child, I had a difficult relationship with my mother, and at nineteen years old, I had an abusive but brief first marriage. Still, I had not yet experienced what I consider real tragedy. As a result, I often used the typical bromides of the day to comfort members of our congregation and others I ministered to in the community.
“God is love.”
“Put your faith in God.”
“It is God’s will.”
“God wouldn’t give you what you couldn’t handle.”
Then one day I was trying to console a woman who had lost her three-year-old son to an accident. I was failing miserably. I tried the usual comforts—“God is good; give yourself up to prayer; we don’t always understand, but God has a plan”—but nothing was working. She was distraught with grief and angry at the world and God and me. Finally, she shrugged my hand from her shoulder, looked me in the eye with fierce anger and love for her son, and pronounced with an almost biblical wrath, “You wouldn’t have such faith in God if you ever lost a child!”
It was like she slapped me across the face—or God had.
I was stunned. Then I thought, “Maybe she’s right. What did I know of tragedy?” At the time, I lived in a protective bubble. I had been blessed with a good man for a second husband, a beautiful home, and three wonderful children. I did work that I loved and thought I was doing some good in the world. What did I know of deep grief and searing pain of the heart?
Her defiant message really got to me, really bothered me. I couldn’t let it go. I tried to, believe me. I didn’t want to admit I couldn’t do my job. I thought about it in the car on the way home. I thought about it as I distractedly prepared dinner for my family. I thought about it while we went through the bedtime ritual.
And I thought about it that night, when my husband was asleep in our comfortable bed in our comfortable home, and the three kids were tucked into their own comfortable beds. I was finally alone and could give the matter my full attention, and then what happened? I had a crisis of the soul. I experienced real spiritual trauma, a profound distress like I had never felt before.
I wept and cried out to the Lord, “What if she’s right? How can I know how to help those walking in deep pain if I haven’t known that pain myself? Would I have the strength and faith to follow your will if I experienced true trials in my life, real tragedy?” In the deep rainy night, I felt God was crying with me.
I thought about it and prayed about it. I was distraught. I questioned everything I knew, everything I had lived for until then, the very foundation of my life, of our lives together—my right to my bubble of happiness; my ability to help others; my faith. I literally asked questions, and I was very specific. Each question was drawn from something someone I was ministering to had asked me. These were questions I couldn’t truly answer because as I ministered to people, I didn’t understand the depths of their pain and despair. I only heard them questioning their faith and even losing their faith in God. Many told me they believed that God didn’t love them any more, especially Lucy who lost her baby. I began to question my own faith about being able to minister. I also began to wonder if my own faith would hold up under difficult or tragic circumstances.
That night, with everyone asleep, I went down to the lowest level of our home where no one else could hear my anguish, tears, and despair. Wondering if I had the faith that would hold up under tragedy, I shouted out, “Oh God, why am I in this position if I can’t do the job?” Then I began asking Him these Five Questions:
Question 1: Would I still have true faith if I lived on my own and had to care for myself and my children as a single mother, and if I never knew what it was like to be a full woman?
Question 2: Would I still have true faith if I didn’t have enough money to support myself and my family?
Question 3: Would I still have true faith if I had a rebellious child who ended up in trouble with the law?
Question 4: Would I still have true faith if I lost a child to death?
Question 5: Would I still have true faith if I had terminal cancer?
After shouting out these Five Questions, they settled in my soul. Of course, I didn’t get the answers that night. It took fifty years to get them all answered. But I knew they were the right questions, and though they didn’t bring me peace, they allowed me to settle my mind enough to get a couple hours of sleep.
When I woke the next morning, grit-eyed and cranky, I had a Jerry Maguire moment. Did I really ask those questions or did I imagine the whole thing? I had had a bad day. Things couldn’t be as bad as they seemed last night. I’ll get over it.
But when I saw the worn leather Bible I carried with me sitting on the night stand, my heart sank. I really had asked those questions. And I could never live up to the example in that book if I backed away now. Without really knowing what I had done, I had set forth on the spiritual journey that has led me—here.
Because you know what? God answered every one of those questions. When one asks, one receives, sometimes in shocking and unimaginable ways. These weren’t always easy lessons. Some of them were downright painful, shaking the bedrock of my life, and more than once. But how God answered these questions has guided my spiritual journey—has become my spiritual journey. These lessons became part of my contract with God, the extraordinary journey of an ordinary woman.
I know that no two spiritual journeys are the same, and that each of us has embarked on our own path on a journey of our own making. What I hope to do is to set you on the road and give you hope on your way, to inspire you to create your own journey and carve out your own path, and maybe to point to a few guideposts along the way.