Friday, July 6, 2012

Chapter 21

The Dawn

After a few months of sleeping too much, I began to feel like I should look for another job or career.  I was incredibly nervous about it but I let some of my friends know that I was looking for part time work and that I would be teaching private piano lessons in my home during my job search.  A few friends from church had their own businesses and hired me to do extra office work for them, to set up a computer and billing system in a diner, to fill in for vacationing employees.  I also spread the word about teaching the music lessons.  In March the following year, Mario and I hosted the first music recital with six students performing.  Little did I know then that I had found my niche where I would blessed beyond belief and where I would heal emotionally and physically.  As years passed I did not find full time employment, instead preferring to work for tiny, local companies in need of office help for short periods of time.  The music business grew as word spread that I was teaching beginner to intermediate piano, voice and violin lessons.  I became enamored with the business and adored each one of my students.  I love to see someone take what I’ve taught them and become successful at it.  By early 2011 I was blessed and honored to teach over 30 students each week and host an annual recital with over 100 attendees.

While the business was growing, I met several Christian people who were instrumental in bringing God’s freedom from fear to my heart.  Each time I felt nervous or sick, I would grab a list of Scriptures that I had made and repeat them over and over to myself.  Sometimes I called my parents or my grandmother for extra prayer support too.  Mario always made himself available to pray with me, speaking in calming tones so that I could learn to control the reactions I was having to the misfiring chemicals in my brain.  One day I was visiting friends who worked at the largest church in town and ended up in one minister’s office.  I shared my journey with him and from across the room he stretched his hand out toward me and began to pray.  It was not an earth-shattering or ear-splitting prayer.  It was not a long prayer.  It was sincere, heartfelt and Scripture based.  Since that day, over four years ago I have never had another debilitating panic attack.

Of course that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had to make choices when the chemicals get all swirled around inside my brain, but since that prayer I have found it easier to know when I should take some medicine, when I should take a day off, when I should make a call to someone else, and when I just need to repeat my Scriptures.  Whenever an I.B.S. symptom strikes, I am no longer terrified that I’m going to be embarrassed in public or that I won’t reach help in time to avoid another illness like what I’d had in India.  It still is a great struggle for me at times but I no longer believe that I’m a spiritual failure or unworthy to minister to others because I know in my heart of hearts that God’s word never fails and He has sacrificed His life so that I can be free.  It is my privilege and honor to share this lesson with other Christians who were raised in the church as I was.  Letting you know that you are not disappointing God when you fall in your trials and make bad choices; that you are not failing irreparably when your faith is too weak to stand there all by yourself fighting a battle that seems endless.  That Jesus’ blood was shed so that His grace would cover us at all times.

I find that sharing my story releases others from fear of failure and brings to light battles being fought privately that should be shared with others who can help.  If you are not a Christian, you too can have a personal relationship with Jesus and can receive His redemptive love in your life.  I pray that all of you would receive Jesus’ immeasurable grace as you read my story and know that I am redeemed and loved by a mighty King who freed me from the bondage of fear.  You can receive that too.  I am still on my journey and a week is not complete without another of my mishaps but I know that I am a miracle of God’s love and provision.  Thank You, Jesus.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Chapter 20

20.  Darkest before the Dawn

The next morning, I went over to my parents’ house before breakfast as I headed out to work.  I told them that Mario and I had gotten engaged and hoped that they would be happy for us.  We talked about some things and I shook the whole time.  I didn’t want to do anything that they didn’t want me to do but I really believed that I was walking in God’s will to be with Mario.  Solving nothing in that conversation, we went to our separate jobs.

The next few months were my most difficult and yet most happy times.  Mario and I planned our wedding for May 2002 and I became a chief-delegator sort of bride.  It took no time at all for us to choose our hall, photographer, church, cake baker and sign up for pre-marital counseling.  In order to make doubly sure that we knew what we were doing, we took counseling classes at two different churches.  For the rest of the wedding tasks, I made a list and gave it to April and my best friend.  I figured if it happened, it happened.  If not, oh well, I was still getting married in May.  

At the same time, April and her husband were building a new house and in November, I decided to buy the house in which they were living.  Mario didn’t have enough credit to help me purchase the house so a family friend put a down payment on the house and I agreed to be responsible for the other two-thirds of the mortgage.  Wasting no time at all, I moved in immediately.  I was now a homeowner!  

As the year ended, we were excited about our upcoming wedding.  In 1999, after April’s wedding, Mario had started a side business with a jazz ensemble playing music at wedding receptions.  He also worked as a janitor at a huge church nearby.  Soon his little side business quickly expanded to include DJ services and he was in high demand around the area.  I became his manager and an event coordinator, organizing wedding receptions and making all the announcements.  In addition, I was very busy at my corporate job and although things were getting a little weird there, I was easily distracted by wedding plans.  I also decided that I would work during the evenings at the same tax agency again that tax season in order to make extra money for the wedding.  Knowing that I needed to save both time and money, in January 2002 I made up all the boutonnieres, corsages, flower arrangements, bows, baskets and bouquets, including my own with silk flowers painstakingly hand picked by me.  Although it might seem like it would have been a lot of work to do alone, it actually was very therapeutic to be able to design the arrangements, putting them together with love and pride. I'm happy to report that they turned out beautifully!

Perhaps you might be thinking that I placed a lot of pressure and expectations on myself at this particular time of my life.  You would be correct.  But it had become a habit for me by then, to overschedule and overwork myself.  I didn’t know how to operate any other way.  If I wasn’t busy all the time, if I had any moments of stillness, I believed that I was failing somehow to be all that God had called me to be.  As you can imagine, this began to take a toll on me both physically and mentally.

I survived the next few months and on May 3, 2002 my father walked me down the aisle and I married my best friend and love, Mario.  My father and mother were there and he walked me down the aisle, not because they agreed with our choice but because he wanted Mario and I to know that regardless of his opinion and no matter what was to happen in the future, he and Mom would always be there praying for us.  Since then, we have developed a friendship and relationship with them that is solid in Christ’s love and mercy.  We are honored to have them in our lives.

The stress of my personal life those past few months paled in comparison to the next ones at work.  After returning from our honeymoon in Cancun, Mario and I settled into married life in our new home quite easily.  We had our disagreements and (honestly) rip-roaring fights but we were happy and very much in love.  But things at work were no longer so honeymoon-ish and the undercurrent of unrest was beginning to take its toll.  I can not be specific about the situation there but I can say that my boss and I were no longer getting along.  Emotionally, I felt like I was going to school and a bully was waiting at the corner to beat me up.  Don’t get me wrong, my supervisor was not at heart a bad person nor was I but our communication had deteriorated.

I know now that I was treating him as though I knew more than he did about his job and our division.  I did control a great many aspects of our section but I think that perhaps I didn’t need to communicate that to him.  He, on the other hand, felt like I was pushing him out of the loop.  Other managers would speak directly to me, the sales guys were communicating exclusively with me, if you needed it done, you came to me.  We had heated arguments about reports and meetings.  I had panic attacks nearly every day either on the way to work, while at work or just after leaving work.

He accused me of deliberately sabotaging his authority, told me I was "moronic" and "catatonic" while I worked, rolled his eyes when I asked for time off because of my health.  The straw that broke the proverbial camel's back was when he literally yelled at me after I refused to change some important details on a report I had generated.  I contacted the human resources department several times over a period of 6 months and received no help or advice.

It got so bad that the year after I got married, while we were on vacation for Memorial Day in Canada, I became so physically ill with the intestinal problems I had a mammoth panic attack and ended up in a hospital in Sarnia, Ontario.  After treating my symptoms there for seven hours, I was finally released and we crossed the border back into Michigan.  On our way home, I called my supervisor and explained to him that I wouldn’t be in to work the next day.  Though it is true that I had taken a lot of sick days and time off in the past year, his response was cruel and rude.  After hanging up with him, I cried all the way home.  We made an appointment with my doctor in the morning and at that consultation, my doctor advised “you either have to quit that job or plan on being sick for quite a long time.  The stress is destroying your health.”

Shocked, Mario and I prayed about it that evening.  We realized that I had been to a hospital or the doctor at least four times in the past eight months treating the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome as a result of panic attacks.  The doctor gave me an anti-anxiety medication and I felt at a loss.  I was a child of God, raised in faith believing I was healed in Jesus’ Name!  I was a walking miracle already and I was struggling with a panic disorder?!  

“A failure,” I thought, “I am a spiritual failure.  Why am I so weak?”  But I did not share these inner thoughts with my husband.  Instead we decided that I would speak to the vice president of the company and I wouldn’t discuss anything with my immediate supervisor at all.  So, I made an appointment with her.  After two separate meetings, she and I decided that I would no longer work at the company.  I committed to working from home for another month to set up training sessions, finish a few projects and say goodbye to my coworkers but then I would be done.  I never spoke to my boss again.

After the decision was made, I found that I slept a great deal.  I had received a severance but couldn’t bring myself to look for another job.  I was defeated mentally and physically.  Depressed without knowing it, it took me three months to get out of bed without having a panic attack.  I didn’t want to become addicted to the anti-anxiety medicine and only took it when the nerves caused the I.B.S. to flare up.  I constantly thought about how I had failed, that God must surely be disappointed in me and what a horrible example of a Christian I was.  Mario struggled with this “new Angel”.  I was not the strong, capable girl he’d known for six years and he wondered how long it would last.  I wondered too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Chapter 19

19.  My New Life
After arriving home, I quickly found a job with a tax agency where I had worked throughout college.  It was easy for me to jump right in to the working world again and I was revved up about showing all my friends and family how much I had changed.  I wish I could say that I was able to stay on that spiritual high but all highs eventually come down.  I was happy to be home, happy to rejoin ministry at my home church, happy to be home with my family.  But I missed Mario.  The stresses of being back in the “real world” at home weren’t overwhelming but my health hadn’t changed much and once again I would have to start paying my own bills with regularity.

During the months at the tax agency I was able to calmly look for a more permanent job and found one with an attorney in the same office building.  I worked for him for another six months and then my cousin called with good news.  “There is an opening for a sales administrator where I work.  Do you want me to give them your resume?”, he asked.  “Of course,” I answered.  After one interview, I received the news that I got the job.  And I was on my way to fulfilling my dream of being the “ultimate corporate chic”.

Meanwhile, Mario was in California working any and all jobs that he could find.  We talked on the phone and even tried this new-fangled thing called chatting online.  He was determined to save up his money and move to Michigan by June 1998.  And he succeeded.  When we finally knew that he was really going to come, I rustled up an apartment for him and lined up a few job interviews.  Once he arrived, he moved in to his tiny little place and got a job at a sports equipment store within one week.

We were so excited to be together again and I knew that I knew that I knew that he was “the one”.  I figured if he had the guts to move all the way out here for me, he was definitely the real deal!  We did not anticipate that it would be five more years until we could get married nor we did we realize the lessons we would learn together about faith in God, patience and just plain old common sense.  Through those five years though, we committed to remain sexually pure before the Lord and we did.  It wasn’t easy and temptation was always right there in our faces, but we did honor God in that way.  Mario and I also committed from the very beginning that we would not play emotional games with each other.  If either of us ever felt that we shouldn’t be together we would be honest about it and would let go.  But it never came to that.

Soon after Mario arrived, my sister and her long-time boyfriend got engaged.  I was so excited for them.  They were married in January 1999 and on the day of their wedding it snowed seventeen inches!!  I felt so bad for them because half of their guests couldn’t come to the ceremony or the reception.  But those of us who braved the roads had a blast.  Mario and another young friend of ours ran the music for their reception and we danced until they kicked us out.  Which didn’t take very long due to the weather conditions.  

It was a very memorable time in our lives and I loved how easily Mario fit into my circle of friends.  Over the next years we worked, we ministered and we played.  We grew together and became the kind of couple around whom anyone could be themselves.  Mario and I decided early on that we would live honestly before the Lord; we would be honest about our struggles, our victories, our stories.  People would watch us and know that they were welcome in our circle.  They would be accepted and loved even while being challenged to pursue God even more.  We have kept that goal ever before us and still live that way today.  My family and friends loved Mario the moment they met him.  Everyone did and still does.  Well, except for my parents.  Don’t get me wrong.  They totally love him now but at first, well maybe not so much.

I will not go into detail about our courtship because mostly that’s a story for Mario or my parents to tell.  Suffice it to say, we waited for five years to get married because we wanted my parents’ blessing and did not exactly receive that.  But time passed and things changed greatly in my life, in all of our lives.  My paternal grandfather (you remember, the one who lived next door to us while I was growing up) had remarried and was building a home up in the Soo near the place where I was born.  He was unwilling to sell the house at the time and rather than have it sit empty, we agreed that I should rent it from him.  Thus began another set of adventures that I will not bore you with involving roommates, Christian young adult parties, and just general growing-up sorts of lessons.

I enjoyed my job as a sales administrator at the automotive company.  I worked there for nearly three years until it was bought out by a larger company and moved its headquarters an hour away from my home.  But I was never satisfied with what I had and what I was doing.  I always wanted to be moving up, to be accomplishing something, changing the way things were done.  I regret my attitude because I failed to see a good thing when I had it.  But I’ve learned from every situation and my lesson while a lowly sales administrator was about being content in the little things.  You know, finding the silver lining.  It was a great job with fantastic benefits and incredible pay.  When I needed laparoscopic surgery in 2000, I was able to take medical leave without any problems.  When I wanted to go on a ten-day mission trip to Romania just a month later, the company gave me leave with pay.  I increased my computer skills, my marketing and database knowledge and sales experience.

But I still struggled with panic attacks, endometriosis (discovered during the laporascopic surgery) and random I.B.S. episodes.  I was torn between wanting to minister and be a Godly example and wanting to live the life my worldly colleagues led.  When the company moved out to Farmington Hills, I knew I would not be going with it.  I said, “unless they make me vice president of something, I’m not driving an hour each way to be a glorified secretary for the rest of my life.”  And so I found another job in the newspaper, went for an interview, was hired and gave my two-week’s notice.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have kept the job I had and found another way to “move up the corporate ladder.”  The new job was at a local, family-owned manufacturing company that had nothing whatsoever to do with the automotive industry.  I felt that I could really go places with this job even though it, too, started low on the totem-pole as a sales administrator.  The first year with this company was like a honeymoon in paradise.  Everything was going so well.  Mario and I had been together for nearly four years, I had my own place and a good roommate that I had met while on the mission trip in Romania, and I was feeling good.

I was well-liked at the new job and got along well with my boss as well as the other directors and workers.  The division I was working with had a simple structure.  I reported to my supervisor as did four sales people “out in the field”.  My guys, as I soon began to label them, were located in Illinois, Georgia and New York.  I developed an amazing relationship with each of them and with the plant personnel.  Among other tasks, each month I took data from the different plants in the eastern United States, generated reports and gave them to my director.

Sales goals and marketing plans were based off of my reports and I began to feel like I was part of something important.  Soon my supervisor began to rely on me for all kinds of tasks and projects.  I began to write operating procedures for our division which was growing by leaps and bounds.  He hired another assistant and I trained her.  I was the only administrator who went to the meetings with the other managers while he was out on the road meeting with customers.  I was feeling.....and acting....mighty important.

Meanwhile, outside of work, things were great with Mario.  But time was beginning to strain our relationship.  Where was it going?  It had been four years since he moved here and yet we were no closer to becoming engaged than before.  I was hanging on to the hope that my parents would have an epiphany and realize that he was the amazing, wonderful, superb, perfect one for me and would shower their blessings on us.  In June of 2001, I finally realized that I was a grown woman with my own rented home who had traveled the world and who had wonderful parents that taught me how to hear the voice of God in my life.  I told Mario I was ready to move on in our relationship if that’s what he wanted regardless of any familial consequences.  It was a heart-wrenching decision for me but the time had come to grow up and away from my family, if that was necessary.

But Mario didn’t ask me to marry him right then.  In fact, several weeks passed and I began to think he wouldn’t.  And then, on the 4th of July at the fireworks in a local town Mario knelt on both knees (he said he was too nervous and thought he’d fall over if he only knelt on one knee) and asked me to be his wife.  With hands shaking, thoughts swirling, eyes sparkling and a huge grin I answered, “yes, of course I will!!”  And just like that, I was engaged.

And I was terrified.  How would I tell my parents?  The people I trusted most in my life, the ones who prayed me through thick and thin - I was going against their advice and wishes.  My heart broke for myself, for Mario and for them.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chapter 18

18.  Fast Forward
My break at home that 1997 autumn was uneventful and I just couldn’t wait to get back to California and my newfound romance.  Mario and I spoke on the phone every night and, boy oh boy, were those phone bills high!  I didn’t share a lot about Mario with my family while I was home and the break was very quick.  Soon I was back in California and Mario picked me up at the airport.  He took me to dinner at his house and I met his family.

Mario has five sisters and at the time, two of them lived at home with his mother.  His 5-year-old niece also lived there since his older sister was a single mom, working hard to make a home for herself and her daughter.  I have to admit when he told me about all those women in his family I was more than a little intimidated.  It’s hard enough to meet the mother of an only son, but to meet 5 sisters and a niece too?  That was nerve-wracking to say the least.  The visit, however, was mostly pleasant and I only shook in my boots twice.  The first time was when I met his 2 oldest sisters, who had driven up to us in the ministry's parking lot. Rolling down the passenger window, both sisters allowed Mario to introduce us. Then the oldest one, who was driving, leaned over and menacingly warned me, "if you break his heart, we'll kick your a**." All of us girls laugh about it now but at the time I thought they might actually be gangsters.

The second time was when his mom took me aside privately to, well, basically ask me what my intentions were regarding her son.  I'd never had a mother of an only son approach me like that. It was kind of scary. But apparently I satisfied her curiosity because after that I was welcomed with open arms and received no further threats from the sisters.

During my break at home I had received a call from the main ministry office asking if I would be interested in attending the directors’ camp as a nanny just before the teams reconvened for the fall tours.  The camp was arranged for a few days up in the mountains designed to prepare all the leadership and directors for the upcoming ministry.  I had met most of them by then and had become friends with one of the couples.  Their little girl was a bilingual toddler, speaking both French and English.  I loved babysitting her while they had meetings and really developed a great bond with her.  While at the camp, my director asked me about my relationship with Mario and I filled him in on our growing feelings toward each other.  I knew that the leadership generally split non-married couples up to join different teams in order to protect team unity and lower the distraction level for ministry purposes. So I expected that would be the decision the leaders had made for Mario and I once we arrived at the general team rehearsal camp in a few days.

When we arrived at the regular rehearsal camp, I was shocked to discover that Mario and I were to remain on the same team.  Confused but happy, I rehearsed with my orchestra teammates and tried to act like Mario and I were not dating [per the ministry rules].  Talk about a tough assignment!  Well, I really had no idea how hard it would actually become. It turned out that it was a whole lot more difficult to act like we were unattached while we toured that fall to places like Hawaii and Colombia.  But even through the hard times, like jealousies and disagreements [we had plenty of those], our director made sure to pray with us as individuals and as a couple throughout the next few months.  During our team’s ministry in Hawaii, it was most difficult to maintain any sort of distance from each other.  I mean, for heavens’ sake it is one of the most romantic places on earth!  Though it was unpleasant at times and decidedly annoying at others, we succeeded in honoring our director, each other and the Lord through the few weeks in Hawaii and later during our tour in Colombia.

From September to mid-December, we played in churches, parks, malls, schools throughout the southern United States, Hawaii and Colombia.  In mid-December all the teams met back in Visalia, California for one last concert together.  By now I had transferred out of the little orchestra, no longer playing the keyboards but singing as an alto in the vocal lineup.  Through the years of ministry with the group I had high aspirations of being a vocalist, learning their warm-ups, the harmonies and lyrics while playing my part in the band.  I thought, “I could give glory to God so much better from up there than down here”.   Good grief, what a stupid way to spend my brain cells!  

Once I was up there in the vocal lineup, I realized that being in the orchestra was actually the enviable position.  In the orchestra, I could play but also watch the audience and pray for them.  I could pick and choose what parts I would play.  I knew that people would watch me but that not everyone would.  As a vocalist, I had to sing my part and my part only, time my vibrato and breathing "just so" to match the others and sing when I might not necessarily feel like it (which was quite often actually).  Everyone was looking at me, all the time and I had to have my “game face” on every night.  That was much more difficult than I had imagined.  Yet it taught me so much about pride & humility, about losing myself in worship and about putting others before me.  Much of what I learned there has helped me in ministry at home and showed me more about God’s forgiveness, grace and mercy than I ever would have learned while behind my keyboards.

Mario and I looked forward to the final concert with trepidation.  We had grown closer through handwritten notes and diaries that we shared but had had very little alone time since September.  Did the Lord want us to continue on with the ministry for the next two-year cycle?  Or did He have a different path for us?  Were we meant to be together forever, as Mario believed? Or were we just there for each other for a season, as I nervously wondered? Separately we prayed about what God would have us do as individuals and as a couple.  

I'll never forget one morning when Mario came to the bus. He seemed like he was floating, and for a 300-pound, 6'3" guy that's really saying something. He couldn't wait to share something with me but we had to wait for all the preliminary preparations to be completed before the bus started moving and we could sit near each other. He whispered, "I had a dream last night. A vision actually, I think." Moved with curiosity, I waited. Still talking in a low tone but no longer whispering he began to share...

"I was driving in a pick-up truck with Robert*, headed up the mountain into the Sequoia National Park. We stopped on a hillside and looked out over Woodlake where all those orchards are," he paused to see if I knew the area he meant. I nodded.

"Well, we were looking out and we could see nothing but trees for quite a ways. And Robert said, 'Mario, see those trees there? That's how many people your grandmother has reached for the Lord.' 'Wow', I replied, 'that's a lot.' Then we got back in the truck and drove further up the mountain. Getting back out, Robert pointed to the west and all we could in the setting sun were trees, stretching to the horizon. Robert told me, 'Mario, that's how many people your mother will reach for the Lord.' Amazed, I said nothing. Getting back in the truck, I pondered all those lives represented by the trees. Suddenly we were at the top of the mountain and Robert pointed to the view surrounding the entire mountain. There were trees all along the sides of the mountains, spilling into the valleys, over the hills, past the bounds of our vision, past the horizon." Mario paused for a moment. By now, I was picturing the scene with him. Once again whispering, he said, "Robert turned to me and sweeping his arm across the view, he told me 'Mario, this is how many people you and Angel will touch for the Lord together."  

It was like the air had been sucked out of the bus, teammates gone and only Mario and I were left. My heart pounded and my imagination whirled. Though he spoke softly, his words hit my spirit like a flood. It locked something into place for me and I saw what Mario had seen. I believed in my heart that we could be a very strong couple for forever, just as Mario had said. It remained to be seen, however, if these feelings would diminish over time as we were about to be separated from each other for who knew how long. We prayed together that day, that God would direct us very clearly and that we would know our next steps.
After the ministry Christmas party and the last concert of the year (which was powerful and amazing), Mario drove me to Los Angeles to catch a flight home.  We stayed with his friends in the city for a day and talked about our future.  We continued to pray together about it and ultimately came to the decision that our time with this particular ministry had come to an end. We would head to our respective homes to see what other paths the Lord had for us.  I was wary about our relationship, even after hearing about Mario's vision, thinking it might have been great while on the road but it wouldn’t stand up to the strains of distance and time.  I knew that oftentimes what we feel so strongly during the "high moments" of ministry times, fades with the onset of "regular life". I thought to myself, “well then, if he's serious and if he really wants me, he will come and get me.”  And giving him one last kiss, I boarded my plane back home to Detroit.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Chapter 17

17.  Understanding Redemptive Love
While it is true that many changes had begun in my life and in my heart, I still wanted to find a way to have fun yet still honor the Lord.  I guessed that I could still go out to listen to good music at a restaurant or bar, or perhaps even go dancing at a club as long as I didn’t drink too much alcohol and flirt.  When I arrived back in California my girl friend and I went to a place where there was a DJ and had some fun just dancing.  But soon our fun was ruined because one of the other patrons there decided we wanted to dance with him.  We let him dance near us for a while but when he put his hands on my hips and got too close to me, I shoved him away with all the strength I had. In anticipation of a problem, I saw several huge guys stand up around the club, watching to see if this man would retaliate against me. Fortunately for him, he backed away from us. Still, our night of fun girl-time was ruined and we left immediately for home.  I have realized since then that I can indeed have fun and honor the Lord, even while dancing, but it has taken me quite a long time to figure out the proper ways to present myself and the fun I’d like to have.

I looked forward to the promise Mario had made me earlier in the month.  My friend and her mother helped me do my makeup and hair the night Mario came to pick me up.  I had brought with me a royal blue cocktail dress, empire waist with sparkles on top and silky skirt on bottom. I would be lying if I said it was a proper skirt length but my goodness, I looked GOOD in it. I was so nervous about going out with my friend, who had quickly become my best friend, and yet had no idea why. For heaven's sake, I couldn't even eat a bowl of Kraft macaroni and cheese and that's saying something there.

“What in the world is my problem?” I asked the ladies.  They just giggled and shrugged their shoulders.  When Mario knocked on the door I took a deep breath, smoothed my skirt and opened the door.  Stepping back to look at me, Mario shook his head and gave a surprised whistle.  Immediately feeling fantastic about everything and smiling at him, I turned to wave at my friends.  Winking at me, they closed the door behind me and I was off on my first date in about eight months.

Mario took me to a place in Fresno, a popular blues spot where some of his cronies would be playing that evening and where I ate calamari for the first time ever.  I was amazed when we walked in and the band members shouted out Mario’s name.  They were still setting up and as he greeted them one by one I realized he must be something special.  These guys were all in their 40’s and 50’s yet they treated him as an equal.  After our appetizers were served, I found out exactly why.  The band leader called Mario up to play and sing with them as a special guest.  The little crowd gathered there went nuts.  I had heard Mario play and sing before but not like that.  He was in his element and it was amazing.  When he came to sit back down with me, I noticed all the other ladies in the place looking at him a little differently, sending flirtatious looks and comments his way.  
I was astonished at the jealous feelings that came over me.  “Hmmm,” I thought, “what’s going on here?”  I decided I was just being over-protective of him and made up my mind to thoroughly enjoy this evening with my best buddy. And when Mario took me home that night, I slept wonderfully.

A few days later all the full-time teams met again at the ministry office and loaded our bags and selves back onto our buses.  We went up to the summer rehearsal camp for a bit, each full-time team practicing alone and also with the summer teams.  Then off we headed for our summer tour.  That June through August 1997 would take us through the western United States and up through Canada to the Northwest Territories.  I had never been to see that part of our country before and I knew it was going to be beautiful.  

I was still playing the keyboards and very much enjoyed being a part of the little orchestra.  Some of our teammates had been moved to summer teams and our bus was hosting a slightly smaller group of people.  But we were a family and were learning how to navigate through our individual quirks, occasional disagreements and felt very blessed to have so much talent in one spot.  God seemed to have truly appointed each of us to be there for that specific time.

My health was definitely much better than it had been overseas but I still dealt with the core issues that fear was causing.  From time to time I experienced bouts of emotional distress and of course, there was still the bothersome gastric nonsense.  The ministry time was sweet and precious that summer.  The Lord spoke through me to a group of teenage girls in Seattle, Washington about anorexia and I was able to pray with some of them.  I met several women who were involved in ungodly relationships or who felt unworthy to be loved either by man or by God.  He caused me to use my experiences to minister to them and in so doing further my own personal healing.

I remember one particular evening in the Northwest Territories.  We were in a tiny little church and during the rehearsal I’d had a disagreement with one of the other girls.  Something about I didn’t like her attitude toward me and she didn’t like my tone of voice toward her.  Ridiculous and petty but quite human and kind of normal for being stuck on a bus together.  My heart was still broken about many things.  I was constantly reliving the choices I had made in my recent past, feeling great guilt and condemnation.  Leigh and Nicole had prayed with me and encouraged me as much as they could but I still needed a special touch from the Lord.  It was one of those nights when I had nothing left to give and was feeling spiritually exhausted.  I cried out to the Lord during the prayer time portion of the concert instead of going out to pray with the others.  “Father, Abba, I cry out to You tonight,” I quietly cried.  “I ask You to help me feel Your presence, to accept Your forgiveness and to understand the depth of Your love for me.” Tears streamed down my cheeks as I waited for His presence to overwhelm me.

Putting my hands over my face, as I sought the Lord I felt someone wrap arms around me.  After a moment of letting myself feel loved, I peeked between my fingers expecting to see Leigh there. But there was no one near.  No one was touching me yet I felt physically surrounded by arms of strength, forgiveness and love.  Breathing deeply, I closed my eyes and for once just accepted God’s peace.  I let His love and the knowledge of His redemption pour through my heart and mind, cleaning out all the left-over cobwebs and ugly corners.  

That night I dreamed that I jumped off a cliff into a churning ocean.  The hopelessness and despair sucked me down, down, down into the depths.  But as I looked up at the waning light I felt a sudden shift and a change in direction.  Instead of getting further away from the light, I was literally hurtling toward it.   Soon I was spewed out of the depths, the cold desperate waves and was lying breathless on the shore.  The sensation woke me up and I believed that I had finally been washed clean and had a new life, a new heart for the Lord.

I wish I could say that everyone noticed a change in me immediately but unfortunately that is not the case.  Humans change slowly but as long as we are willing, God makes all things good both for us and through us.  As the days passed I realized that I still felt unworthy in many ways but that the good work He had begun would one day be completed (Philippians 1:6).  Fear still had its hold in my heart but I knew now that when I ran to God, He had all the tools I needed to fight it.  He was already preparing a way to victory for me even then.

The friendships I made that summer on the road have lasted and I cherish each one.  I became even closer to Leigh, Nicole and Mario.  One morning in late July, deep into the Northwest Territories, I opened my eyes and had a sudden realization.  “Oh my goodness.  I’m in love with Mario.”  Never in a million years would I have ever suspected that I harbored those feelings.  Sure, I loved the attention he gave me and I was jealous and protective of him.  But surely that didn’t mean love.  Yet that morning, I knew with all my heart that I’d fallen for a Godly, talented, beautiful man.  I was so excited to get ready and get to that bus to share my "aha" moment with him. Yet when I told him of my newfound feelings later that day in a private moment, he was not too excited.  His exact words were, "Oh Man!" Undeterred I asked him why.  He said, “it’s not that I don’t love you.  But I’m a team leader and you just broke all the rules by telling me this.  Have you told our director?”  I laughed and with a very high degree of attitude said, "no but you can tell the director anything you like. He already thinks I'm a slut."

Frustrated, Mario did tell our director who was absolutely furious.  He told Mario to avoid me at all costs, since I was probably just playing with his emotions and would drop him when the tour was over.  When I heard that I was so angry and it nearly undid all the things I had only recently learned about God.  I was already feeling unworthy of receiving love from a man of God based on past decisions I’d made.  I shared those thoughts with Mario and he went home after one of our concerts to pray for me. The next morning on the bus he took me aside and simply replied, “Angel, if God can forgive you then who am I?  I am not bigger and better than God to decide not to forgive you.”  And that was when I fully understood what redemptive love truly meant.  That Jesus didn’t die for everyone except me, He died even for me.  He paid a price that I was completely unable to pay so that I could be forgiven, loved and free (Hebrews 10:10). Nothing I could do would change that or make Him love me more. His love is not based on my performance or perfect facade but rather on the fact that I desperately need a Savior.

My director and I agreed to sit down and have a chat.  I shared my heart with him, this time telling him the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I held nothing back, explaining that although my passive behavior and thoughtless flirting had led another male teammate to believe I had a romantic interest in him I had no such interest.  I reminded him that Mario and I had become good friends and that I was just as surprised as either of them that I felt so strongly for Mario. I told him that I appreciated his concern and I was willing to submit to his instruction if he was willing to seek the Lord for further direction.  Since the summer tour was ending in one week we agreed to meet again in a few weeks, after praying separately about the issue, just before the fall ministry began to discuss the matter further.

Meanwhile, Mario and I decided that instead of taking a full 2 week break at home, I would come back early to California again so that we could spend some quality time together.  Each August before the break, all the teams would come together and perform a Homecoming concert, giving all the California supporters and families a chance to see the ministry up close.  Afterward, many of us would get together at hotels, at restaurants or in homes to visit with each other before flights home the next morning.  Mario and I went out to eat with a bunch of our friends and then took off for some time alone.  He drove me around town showing me his old hang-outs, old houses, his school.  We stayed up very late and he took me back to the hotel so I could pack up my things. Unfortunately, we had stayed up so late I wasn't able to get any sleep and left about an hour later than I should have for my flight.  Driving me to the airport as quickly as he could, we talked and talked, making our plans for my early return.

I nervously watched the clock as we drove to Fresno from Visalia and I knew I would barely make it in time for my flight, if at all. Now, I'm usually a very timely person but as the previous chapters indicated when I'm in love, I can't seem to tell time at all and am always late. Whether for curfew or, apparently, for a flight. As soon as I hit the doors of the terminal, I dropped every bag but one and quickly kissing Mario, ran for the security check while yelling back for him to UPS my bags to me. I had pre-printed my boarding pass and squeezed through security just in time to see my airplane pulling away from the jetway. I MISSED MY FLIGHT! Though I'm heartily amused today looking back at it, at the time I was mortified. How on earth would my parents feel about me missing a flight because of a boy when they used to ground me for being late for curfew? It mattered not to me that I was 20 years old. I felt like a schoolgirl again caught doing something wrong.  

So, I went back to the airline desk at the front and found Mario just sitting there with my luggage all around him. Apparently he knew I wouldn't make the flight and patiently decided to wait until I knew it too. Surprised that he was still there, I melted into his arms and cried like that little schoolgirl. Patting my head and reassuring me, he helped me gather my things and we transferred my missed flight to another ticket for the next flight out. Then he stood next to me as I called my parents to tell them of the travel changes. Funny but they didn't respond badly at all. All that worry for nothing. As usual. He then took me to lunch and got me safely on the next flight out to Michigan. What a man!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Chapter 16

16.  First Tour Finish
The remainder of the winter tour passed without disaster or misadventure, for which I’m sure my director is eternally grateful.  Landing back in Los Angeles, California was the most exciting thing!  Even though I’d been so sick and had such weird adventures, I still had done my studying and had accomplished my task, faxing home my papers to my mother.  When we landed, I remember calling home.  I think it might have been the first time I spoke to them since leaving the States in January and the emotions just flooded the phone lines.  I was healthy, I told them.  They told me my papers had been submitted and received just fine.  I had received my graduation approvals and my Bachelor’s degree was sitting on my desk at home.  I would be home within a few weeks and we would have a big party to celebrate.

While finishing out the tour with a few concerts in California, Mario and Leigh and I cemented our friendships.  The three of us laughed together and prayed together.  Mario and I also shared a very special friendship with a girl named Nicole*.  Throughout the tour people thought she and I were sisters because we looked so much alike.  God had already mightily used all three of these people to bring healing into my life.  I only hoped that I could reciprocate in a special way to each of them one day.

Before I went home to Michigan for the spring break, I made Mario promise to take me to hear him play the blues somewhere when I came back in a few weeks.  I had discovered that not only did he play trumpet but he had been a local blues favorite playing the harmonica and singing around his area in California.  Having been raised on Southern Gospel, Elvis and praise and worship tunes, I was fascinated.  And so, he rolled his eyes and promised to take me.

When I arrived at the Metro-Detroit airport I was beyond excited to see my family.  I had already changed so much and had so much to share with them.  I talked a mile-a-minute all the way home.  Apologizing to them for the overload, I asked them about life the past few months.  They were teaching at the church and working hard at home.  Mom and April were also attending college classes, getting fabulous grades.  

One of the funniest things was my family’s reaction to my first appearance.  When I left in January, my hair was thick and shoulder-length.  Well, while overseas in the searing hot weather, I had decided to have my friend cut it into a bob-style, just under my ears.  It was very cute and much cooler.  Unfortunately a short haircut needs more constant maintenance.  So, in order to save my friend the bother of spending her day off cutting my hair when we were in Hong Kong I decided to go to a hair salon downtown and pay for it to be done professionally.  

My friend Nicole went with me and we grilled the hair stylist to make sure he understood what style I wanted. And also to make sure that he spoke English.  He insisted, “yes, yes” and began trimming.  He was using a buzz clip and although I thought that was odd I figured it must be a cultural preference.  As Nicole and I chatted, however, I noticed her eyes were growing larger and larger as I watched her face in the mirror.  She was sitting behind me watching him cut my hair.  Finally, she gulped and weakly asked, “are you sure that’s the way you want it, Angel?”  Stopping the barber abruptly, I reached my hand to touch the back of my head and felt….scalp.  

Grabbing a hand mirror, I looked with horror at the nearly bare-naked, freshly shaved back of my head.  I had no bangs in front either, just hair angled down long at my chin and now practically bald at the back.  Mouths wide open, we looked at each other and back to the barber.  He said, “you no like shave?”  And I began to laugh.  Nicole practically had tears in her eyes over my “beautiful hair” and I was laughing so hard.  Signaling to the stylist, I said, “you might as well finish it up now.”

I had not told my family about my new hairdo because I had gotten used to it and forgotten what a shock the first impression was.  And it had already grown out some, it was at least ¼ of an inch back there now.  My Dad and uncle aptly named my new style the “rick-shave”, after I told them of the harrowing rickshaw rides we’d taken, and there was another of my mishaps put down in family history.

Spending that time with my family was incredible and I began to rebuild my relationships with them. I had yet to reconnect with any friends back at home though, largely because I still didn't know if I had any friends left there. And at the time, I didn't care to know. I was more excited to get back to California and spend a few days with my new friends before heading back out on tour.  So, I said goodbye again and flew out to stay with a host family near Visalia.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Chapter 15

15.  Getting Better
I would like to insert another humorous anecdote here. On one of the rare occasions when I was able to participate in an evening concert, I found myself being followed around by a dark-skinned, constantly smiling, very creepy local man. He was driving the truck that carried our equipment from concert site to concert site. Rounding the corner of the building outside, heading back into the main hall where we had just performed, I nearly ran into his outstretched arms. Startled, I pushed him away and looked around for anyone I knew and trusted. Funny but the only one around was that cocky Hispanic trumpet player again. Desperately I called his name and pulling him aside, I quickly let him know that I was being pursued by the truck driver.

I don't remember his response, if indeed he gave me one, but I saw him walk over and start having a discussion with the driver. After that, the man left me completely alone. Days later, I asked Mario what he had said. The exchange occurred as follows,
"Hey man," said the trumpet player, "I noticed you following that blonde girl over there around."
"Yes," responded the truck driver, "I think she is very beautiful and I want to make her my wife." (no, I'm not kidding)
"Well, I don't think that's gonna work", trumpet-man replied, "because you see, she's my wife."
Truck driver paused a moment and then offered, "I can give you one elephant for her." (stop laughing, this is true!)
Mario thought about it (yes, he did) and answered, "man, if you had two elephants I'd really think about it but I can't just give her up for one." (grrrrrrr)
Truck driver became very insulted and stomped away, his dreams of happily-ever-after destroyed by the lack of two elephants.

Ministering during February 1997 in India changed my perspective on life, relationships and God.  I could no longer ignore the fact that I had it good here at home in the United States. We all do.  I couldn’t brush my attitudes, perceptions, judgments and expectations under the rug.  I came face to face with my own inconsistencies and inability to be truly compassionate.  Reaching out to the Lord, I asked Him to give me His heart for His people.  I didn’t want to be fake, to put up a front.  I wanted to be honest, to be healed both physically and emotionally.  In Madras, my roommates prayed with me and I was delivered of all the anorexic thoughts I’d been having and I have never once been under its control again.

I was still very ill physically but during that time I depended on God’s strength and His Scriptures which promised me He would never leave me.  I remembered that He had saved me before and I committed to learn how to love Him, to love myself and then to love others His way.

After India, we headed to Thailand where I was taken to a major hospital in Bangkok.  I received the best care and medications. I discovered that I had a stomach infection, an intestinal infection and a uterine infection. Under Thai doctors' care though, my health turned completely around.  I was back behind my keyboards (there was enough electrical power now for me to play both of them), praising the Lord once again for His faithfulness.  My director and I came to an agreement about the short guy who thought I was going to be his wife and I made it clear to my director that I had no interest.  I enjoyed ministering at the schools in Thailand and had several opportunities to use my schooling in East Asian cultures.  It was a wonderful time and after about two weeks, we prepared to leave for Hong Kong.  We would spend the rest of our time there, taking a few day trips to China and to Macau for some concerts .

One day on the way to Macau from Hong Kong, the team embarked on a hydrofoil boat.  Somehow, a teammate and I got separated from the team and ended up in a completely different section on the boat.  That teammate was Mario.  The same guy who had reprimanded me on the bus in India.  The same one who was shocked when I requested his presence the night of the fire.  On that boat ride, I discovered that Mario was not nearly as obnoxious as I had once thought and he was really quite compassionate and funny.  I ended up telling him all my deepest, darkest secrets that day.  I have no idea how that happened but somehow, it was just so easy to talk to him. It was the beginning of God answering my prayers for being able to see through His eyes and have His heart for others.

As soon as we arrived in Macau, Mario and I went our separate ways but I had learned something very interesting.  I learned that though I always accused other people of having preconceived ideas about others, I was the queen of them all.  Once again, I sought the Lord and asked Him to continue to break my heart for the needs of His children.