“Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track.”
Right from the beginning, on the first page in my Bible, God encourages us to achieve. In fact, the first word to the first man in Genesis 1:28 (NIV) is, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” In these words God plants the seeds of purpose in the heart of man. For most of us, knowing we have purpose is not the challenge, its knowing our purpose which presents the dilemma. Some wander through life and never discover they are circling the same mountain over and over again. While history makes the names of Abraham, Moses, David and Solomon, famous; their stories are just like our stories, testimonies to our relationship with God. Like these biblical heroes, there may be an Ishmael moment, or loss of self- control, but this only magnifies the greatness of our God, and His grace on our behalf! While we are all born with purpose, we must be washed in the blood to see it realized.
For some of us, discovering our purpose has more ups and downs than a yoyo. I was born in Louisville, to an unwed mother, and given up for adoption at six weeks. I was the third adopted child for my new family, with a younger adopted brother still to come. While they provided a good home, there was always the banner of rejection hanging in the corner of my life. We lived in Hopkinsville Kentucky the first years of my life, but moved to Owensboro, as my father became manager of the airport. In retrospect, it was in Owensboro that I saw the first glimpse of purpose in my life.
In our new neighborhood there were lots of kids, and that was great! The summers were awesome as moms’ pushed kids out of their homes early in the morning, with a general understanding not to return until the street lights came on. We played tag, Hide and Seek, and Red Rover, and all the games that kids play. I was very good at Hide and Seek because of my secret place. My secret place was under the sticker bushes next to the brick wall of our house in the front yard. No one wanted anything to do with the sticker bushes, they were brutal. But I knew how to slip into a small area of the bushes and avoid their spearhead tips.
As a child I was drawn to watch the evangelists on television, especially Billy Graham. As he preached the Word, the Holy Spirit touched my heart. I wanted to be like Billy; preaching the word, helping lost souls know the Lord, and putting on a show. I was seven years old. It was during one of his sermons I decided to start my church; The Sticker Bush Church.
Sweat dripped down my face, trickling onto the dirt floor beneath me. I was on a mission. The sticker bushes were overgrown, nearly as tall as the garage, but I was determined that nothing would stand between me and clipping the bushes back from the brick wall. We were going to have church!
Has there been anything in your life which caused such turmoil in your spirit? Something which caused you to go full speed ahead, no matter the cost or consequences? There I was, wrestling the sharp spears of nature in shorts and a tank top. Not exactly the ideal clothing for sticker bushes, but what seven year old contemplates those things when on a mission. I was head strong, and focused on finishing. Some parents might refer to me as a “strong willed child,” but I rather see myself a “warrior in training.”
Every few minutes, I would step from beneath the bushes to gauge my progress. The green waxy leaves were razor sharp, with spearhead tips that pricked my skin. As I tugged and clipped the limbs, they slapped my face leaving scratches and an occasional puncture. The bright red berries on the bush fell one by one taming those stubborn wild limbs. The shade prevented grass growth under the bushes, so the dirt floor of my church became a swirling reddish color, almost blood stained, as the berries were crushed under my feet. Sweat continued pouring down my face and mingled with the dirt and berries, creating a wonderful mixture of imaginary strawberry mud pies.
As the hours passed, my determination remained firmly focused on the task at hand; clear the debris and clip the sticker bushes back before dark. It was nearly dusk when the last bushes were clipped and the spearheaded lanky limbs drug out into the yard. Dried blood smeared my arms, and I could feel the sting of cuts on my face and legs from battling the stubborn sticker bushes. But none of it mattered because there was now a refuge, a place for young parishioners, the Sticker Bush Church.
There were many valuable lessons from my work in the sticker bushes, and a lot of manual labor for a young child. The blood would wash off and the cuts and scratches would quickly heal. The impact on my heart would remain hidden for many years, but that day was the beginning of a journey into my destiny. God’s plan was beginning! Psalms 37:4 (NIV) tells us, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”
Each of us is born for greatness, but it is God’s greatness! The sacrifice made for the Sticker Bush Church turned that summer into a very special time. The purity of my heart, as a child, is exactly the reason Jesus told the Disciples to allow the children to come to Him. He knew their hearts, and He knows my heart too!
Being the dramatic child, my little Sticker Bush Church stayed stuffed full of neighborhood kids, all anxiously waiting the grand production. Upon entrance the young parishioners placed their quarter in the offering plate and took a seat on the crusty mud floor. To prevent backsliding or escaping the hell-fire and brimstone sermon, I preached at the opening of the church, which just so happened to be the only entrance. I found this to be quite effective as no one wanted to climb those spear pointed branches and leaves. After the sermon, everyone enjoyed round candy wafers which served as communion.
After communion the congregation was led out of the sticker bushes for a fitness challenge. Typically, there would be running, or jumping the metal trash cans, as a competition. An older neighborhood boy, jealous of my skillful jumping ability, tagged me with an undesirable nickname, “frog.” It still rears its ugly head at family gatherings, with the playful “ribbit” starting off the chorus; ridiculous. I simply smile and say “Forever Rely On God.”
While the Sticker Bush Church operated for a number of summers, there were very few conversions, but the kids were all in great physical condition! In retrospect, this was actually the beginning of Shaped by Faith. God’s plan of bringing faith and fitness together as worship began during our congregational competitions. But there would be many bridges to cross before God’s purpose would be understood by His young evangelist.
Rather than say the next few years were littered with mistakes and other circumstances that took my eyes off God, let’s say I spent the next 15 years building my testimony. God is always with us, but we are sometimes distracted, or worse, self-concerned, self-indulgent or just plain selfish. But God gave us freedom of choice because He did not want a robotic love; He wanted us to make the decision to choose Him with our love.
For most of us, family is foundational. For me, being adopted, whether real or imaginary, caused me to carry abandonment. I felt unwanted. As a teenager, my mother’s fight with cancer was surreal. I knew she was sick, but no one talked about it in a way that led me to believe she was dying, soon. We spent the summer at MD Anderson in Houston, but it seemed more like a vacation than treatment for an incurable disease. When we returned home, and the hospital bed was placed in her bedroom, my after school time transitioned from typical teenage girl to nurse and comforter. I was fourteen years old. She rapidly withered, and on the evening she passed, I was at a friend’s house trying to avoid the inevitable. When I was notified, there was a sense of disapproval for my absence. Walking the gauntlet of friends, family, and religious leaders, up the stairs to her bed, the pressure to kiss my now departed mother was met with rebellious resistance.
With the duty of my kiss completed, I ran back through the gawkers, down the stairs, and into my father’s smoking room, crying and plastering my face into one of his King Edward Cigar boxes. I wept, and wept, soaking the old cigar rings he saved in the boxes. There was a comfort, a sweet familiarity to the rich fragrance in the box. I had been abandoned again. After a short while, a family member stuck their head in the room and told me to “dry it up!” I did, for a long, long time.
Our family floundered, trying to swim through the tears. It seemed every decision, and choice made, came from a position of pain. We were wandering in a fog, allowing circumstances to transform our way of life. God transforms circumstances, but He and I had not been on a first name basis for quite a while. If only someone had spoken Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV) into my life as a word of encouragement, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. I was living in verse 10, in exile from God and His planned purpose for my life.
While seemingly untethered, God sent people into my life to help me grow into my purpose. In those days there were no grief counselors at the school, but the drama teacher saw something in me worth developing. With other students avoiding public speaking like the plague, I was drawn to speaking in front of other students. I loved the stage. It was far better to play someone else in life. She demonstrated genuine care and concern, and nurtured my dramatic development. It was another step in God’s preparation.
My father sent me off to college thinking I should be a teacher, like my older sister. Good steady work. My plans were to be an actress. I am not sure whether I followed my boyfriend to college or if he followed me, but whichever way it was, our life would be forever changed. With changes all around, and boundaries diminished, we grew closer, and I became pregnant. I quit school and he joined the Air Force. My daughter was born, and my father told me to choose marriage or adoption; we married and followed my husband to Texas. I was determined my daughter would not be sent to adoption. The cycle would end.
This was a difficult thing, and Matthew 6:34 (NIV) is a great comfort during anxious moments in relationships. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Part two of this development is Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV), “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” Our marriage was hardly made in heaven, but necessary to prevent the consequences of our actions from potentially destroying a life. There was peace knowing every day was a new opportunity.
It was after my daughter’s birth, and the ensuing weight gain, which first brought fitness training into my life. The classes were great! I lost weight, got out of the tiny apartment, and my daughter got time away from me. The instructor said I was a natural and suggested I start teaching classes. Once again God placed someone in my life to help guide me towards my purpose.
The next five years were filled with new opportunities, challenges, and life changing events. I continued teaching fitness, learning and expanding my knowledge. We moved to Omaha, and I began modeling, while still teaching fitness. Modeling seems very glamorous, but it has its seedier side. The industry wants what it wants, no matter the sacrifices needed. My body was a little too athletic for their liking. At 5’9”, I was a little short to their liking, and naturally they would say, “You could always lose some weight.” They told me I was better suited for television. I taught models runway, etiquette, and saw my students reach tremendous success in runway and magazine covers.
The 80’s were a very big time for aerobics training and I decided to buy five fitness facilities in the Omaha area. Keep in mind, I was 23 years old and had no business experience. Everything was going pretty well, but I started experiencing high fevers and debilitating exhaustion. For one year the doctors dismissed my condition as one of the following; flu, PMS, wanting attention, and working too hard. Now all of those are possibilities but I had a keen awareness of my physical body. Finally, we went to a hospital and demanded answers. One doctor decided to check my heart. He didn’t think it was my heart but it had to be ruled out. They did a heart catherization, and voila, they found holes in my heart. They didn’t believe it. They did another heart catherization, the holes were still there.
Open heart surgery was fairly new at the time, about ten years old, and it was definitely new to me. While you might think it would be frightening, and leave you paralyzed in fear, but I was relieved the issue causing my symptoms had been found, and would be corrected. A patch was placed over the hole and the surgery was a success. Within four weeks I was back teaching classes, but soon discovered my business had not survived the surgery. Mainly a cash business, either my students stopped coming to classes while I was out, someone drained my bank account, or my instructors gave themselves a pay raise. My business failed and I lost the five studios. The business loss, along with thousands of dollars in medical bills, sent me back home to Kentucky to start anew.
Far from the conquering hero returning home from battle, though healthy, I felt anything but successful. If only I had known what God had planned for me, I may have quoted Paul from Philippians 3:8 (NLT), “For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ.”
I quickly found a fitness position at a facility, and began teaching. My two daughters were adjusting and life was becoming routine. My class had ended and students approached with questions and comments about the class. While finishing with some other students, a lady approached and asked if she could pray with me? I was surprised, taken off guard, and frankly, a little embarrassed. She was into my personal space, physically and spiritually. I started rattling off an excuse of picking up my daughter from pre-school, and maybe another time. She said, “God told me to pray for your healing.” I thought to myself, “My healing?”
I quickly exited the facility feeling a sense of relief, all the while asking myself, “Who refuses prayer?” When we got home I put my daughter down for a nap and began cleaning up the house and doing laundry. To my surprise there was a knock on my door. I peeked through the peep hole of the door, “It was her!” I thought quickly, “Let her knock, I am not going to answer.” She kept knocking and I thought she would wake my daughter. Finally, I answered. Typically, I would be a gracious host and invite her in and offer her tea and crumpets, but she was a little weird. I thought, “Is she stalking me?”
She did not hesitate, and came straight to the point, “I must be obedient to God, and he asked that I pray for your healing today.” I could see something good and gentle in her face. She stepped towards me lifting her hands straight out to touch my hands for prayer. She was really into my space, but I could sense she meant me no harm. She said, “God wants you to be healed.”
This was one of those moments without explanation. How could she know about my endometriosis? How could she know I was having a procedure in a few days? How could she know I would not be able to have children? As her hands touched my hands it felt as if I was experiencing another heart catherization. There was a warm sensation flowing through my body, from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. To be honest, I could not tell you one thing she said in her prayer, but I know I was in the presence of the Holy Spirit. I know God immediately healed my body completely! Not only did He heal my endometriosis, He blessed me with twin boys! Isn’t it just like God to provide abundantly more than we could ever ask! Best of all, He filled the spiritual void in my heart and I was born again that day!
My whole life changed. I hungered for the Word of God. Every waking moment was spent in prayer and study of the Word. The very next morning in my fitness class I started out asking if there were any prayer requests. After asking I wondered, “What if they have prayer requests? I don’t know how to pray aloud?” God spoke to me, “Just open your mouth.” There were, and I did.
While pouring over the Word, I came to a verse which stopped me in my tracks. First Corinthians 6:19-20 (NIV), “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
The search was over! My purpose was found! It had always been there. God never moved, I just circled around to be where he called me to be. The Sticker Bush Church, walking into a fitness class, my drama teacher, the holes in my heart, an obedient servant, all circumstances driving me back to God and His purpose.
I was born with purpose. I am Shaped by Faith; shaping bodies and hearts for God’s purposes.
And you thought I just taught fitness!