I started thinking seriously about God around the time I celebrated my Bat Mitzvah. Having prepared for four years in Hebrew school, planned a big party complete with fancy invitations, written a speech, and shopped for not one but two new dresses for the occasion, I wanted no part of it. It felt dishonest. I didn’t know if I was a Jew at all. I didn’t know if I believed what I wrote in that sermonette. I understood the Hebrew that I worked to translate from the Torah well enough. But who I was? My religious identity? That wasn’t clear at all. I wanted no part of that Bat Mitzvah.
Did I mention I was 13? Mom said the Bat Mitzvah was a go and so it was. Four years later, the confirmation was a go too. Four years after that, the conversation changed. This time, I was planning to marry and, for the first time ever, I was able to clearly articulate my religious status and why my wedding was no place for a Rabbi. I told my Mom how I remembered attending Sunday school in a church. I explained that I recalled singing “Jesus Loves Me” and, I noticed that, when we moved to a new town and started attending a Jewish synagogue, no one seemed to think Jesus was all that special. According to them, it didn’t matter that He loved me. I explained that the whole God-Jesus thing left me confused; uncertain about who God is.
I confessed I didn’t know what I believed and so, rather than continue the pattern of looking like something I wasn’t, I was just going to leave God out of my marriage altogether. My fiancé seemed fine with that. In truth, I’m not even sure we discussed it. We sort of involved a pastor, he happened to be the same person who baptized my first husband as a child but it was a coincidence. We really didn’t know the guy and, from my perspective, his presence there did nothing to “bless” our marriage. We were on our own in this thing and, hyperventilation on the way to a make-shift aisle notwithstanding, I was okay with that.
I recall the reason we married at a fancy Fort Worth hotel. I was new to the bible belt, having just moved to Texas from California two years prior. I was really frustrated that not one pretty church I visited in search of the picture-perfect wedding venue would allow me to choose my own music. They had the audacity to expect me to limit my music selection to hymns. Well, I showed them. My Dad said I could have whatever music I wanted at my wedding so we found a venue that agreed. I feel the need to say this right now:
Father God forgive me, I knew not what I was doing!
Seriously, I just re-read that last paragraph. What a mess. I was more than a little accustomed to getting my way, especially with my Dad. We were incredibly close. He was my most trusted adviser and we had many, many long talks about life, human nature, business, and even God before dementia slowly robbed him of his brilliant mind. Jim Fithian was my step-Dad, but I never knew him as anything but Dad. He married my mom before I can remember and adopted me and my three sisters, making me the youngest of eleven children (yes, 11!). After serving more than two decades as a United States Marine, Dad left behind the officer’s life he loved. He had been called to a fourth tour in Vietnam and wasn’t convinced he would survive to provide for his now very large family.
The financial struggles were real as Dad worked full time, finished college, and tried to feed Jim, Lou, and crew. But, as my siblings grew older and moved away, and Dad’s career as a banker took off, the financial picture got brighter. Mom and Dad traveled quite a bit and I stayed behind under the care of one of my older siblings. Throughout middle school and high school, my brothers and sisters often shared life advice. And, rarely did any two of the ten agree. Some were Christians but I don’t remember hearing much about Jesus. I did receive lots of advice on everything from premarital sex and birth control, to what to share with mom and dad and what to keep secret. I never really made up my own mind on any of it. Instead, I just aimed to please whoever was in charge at the time. And, when no one else was in charge, I decided it was perfectly fine to just please myself. There was one exception though…I really did want to please my Dad. His favor and affection were my favorite. And, as I entered into relationships with other men, that desire to please continued.
Looking back, I can see clearly how I lived much of my life according to one big lie. You have to be pleasing to be loved. I suspect many of us fall for that one. For me, being pleasing or pleasant meant not having much of an opinion (except about wedding music, it seems), not being too much trouble, and generally just going along with what everyone else was doing. So, that’s what I did. When I was young, I partied and had way too much fun; that’s what everyone was doing… and it was fun. As I got older, was married, and babies came along, the stakes got higher.
Even though my earliest aspiration was to have babies and stay at home to raise them, I became the primary breadwinner for my family. I was good at my work and I really liked the accolades that came with it. I found myself with fantastic professional opportunities and left my early dreams behind. I kept working hard to please my bosses, build a career, buy all the nice things, and keep my kids “happy” in the latest fashions. I had learned to be self-reliant and I was excelling at it. Everything looked great on the outside but nothing could have been further from the truth. I was getting increasingly exhausted; my ambition was taking a toll on my marriage and it conflicted with growing resentment. My kids were growing up without me.
After taking a new job I found myself surrounded by wonderful younger people who seemed so much wiser than I was at the time…or ever! They were my employees and junior colleagues and something about them was different. They had opinions but also exhibited an amazing grace. They worked hard but never let work interfere with church obligations. They talked openly about their faith but never seemed to impose on anyone. I remember one day at work I was weighed down with worry. I sensed my kids were needing more from me but I wasn’t able to restructure my life to give them what they needed. I sheepishly asked one of my interns if he would pray for my kids.
I have always remembered telling my big sister that I would accept Jesus as my savior. I was maybe five years old at the time and, if memory serves, I was standing with my back against the refrigerator door. I love my sister with my whole heart. She is my most devoted prayer partner to this day. But I’m pretty sure that profession of faith had a whole lot more to do with pleasing her than it did with pleasing Jesus. Still, I asked my intern for prayer that day because on some level I had hope. Maybe He still loved me.
“When I cried out, you answered. You strengthened my spirit.”Psalm 138:3
I became a seeker of truth well before I trusted Jesus. A dear friend whose faith is strong enough to believe that those who seek really will find encouraged me to just seek the truth. And I did. I shopped around for a church home that would help me give my children a solid moral foundation. I invited their Dad to come along as I went from one church to another. Beginning to find my voice, I went to church even if he didn’t. I started reading the Bible, talking to God, and asking lots of questions. Meanwhile, my Dad was showing early signs of dementia, my Mom was in the hospital more than she was home, my marriage was falling apart, and I was still trying to keep everything together on my own.
Those first years as a seeker of truth were some of the hardest of my life. I was walking in a world of my own making, steeped in arrogance, and mired down by guilt. I had let go of the marriage and devastated my children in the process. I was aiming for happy kids so what did I do? I pulled their entire world out from under their sweet young feet. What kind of mother does that? Not the kind I hoped to be. I wanted to be their healer, but often my kids would find me in bed sobbing, bible open, trying desperately to find a way forward. One night, while reading my bible and soaking in the tub, I found it. I think it’s no accident that the first time I accepted God’s Word as truth, I was naked in a tub of clear water. Scripture called me to obedience. It was a moment of truth. I put my bible down, sat up in that tub and I prayed. “Your will, not mine, Lord.” For the first time, I truly submitted.
Over time, I learned that Jesus really is worthy of our trust. I came to understand that there is such thing as truth and I accepted that Jesus loves me–even when I’m unpleasant–because I am His, a daughter of the one true King. I’ve learned that He is the healer, not me and that I can trust Him to take my messed-up story and make it His story of redeeming love. And, I can trust Him with my children’s stories too. I understand that obedience to God’s way, however difficult it may be or unpopular it might make me, reaps the greatest rewards. God simply does know best. He can handle my questions, my fears, my doubts, and even my temper, and help me find my way back to the truth.
All of those lessons took…a while! In truth, I don’t think I really let God dig me out of the muck and mire of my first marriage until well after I married Jose eleven years ago. This man is step-Dad to my three kids, an amazing leader and visionary in our community, and I know he dons the armor of God daily. I know, in part, because he’s had to use the full armory– truth, righteousness, peace, and his own salvation story–to help me remember who I am. I also know because I pray for him and our marriage daily. I don’t go it alone anymore. I depend on God, feed on His Word, and I’m learning to lean on community. That’s what I’m doing here, with Modern Day Mary.
So, if you’re feeling discouraged or unsure of your faith or mired down in guilt, let me encourage you. There is hope! We can grow in faith together. We can learn to let Godly community help us grow in relationship with the one true King, find our voices, and be His hands and feet by investing in relationship with one another. It will be beautiful. I know. I’ve seen what he can do with even the tiniest faith and the biggest failures. He delights in this work. He delights in you! Let’s know Him better together.