A Reminder from My Six-Year-Old Self

First writing

I still remember it, though the edges of the memory are cloudy after more than 50 years. I am sitting at the classroom desk, fat No. 2 pencil clenched in my six-year-old fist as I labor over my writing tablet. Our second-grade teacher was allowing us a few quiet moments of free time. I must have felt inspired to write.

That afternoon in 1966 I composed my first “ode to life,” if one can call it that, pencil point scratching against cheap paper as I poured out all that I loved about life. I loved my “mama and dada,” the birds that sing for us, the schools, the teachers too. I loved the whole world around me.

“But most of all,” I concluded, “I love God.”

~~~

The words of the six-year-old resonate deeply with one who has now turned 60. If only I could have kept that truth as the central pillar of my life! But like so many others, I suppose, as I grew up I began to move away from the simplicity of loving God to the complexities of loving the world, and consequently experienced all the heartache that entails.

I didn’t live a wild and dissolute life—not at all. My whole life was spent in what I hoped was sharing the Gospel message, first as an editor with Billy Graham’s “Decision” magazine, and then as a writer of inspirational fiction. And I never stopped loving God; He was in fact the love that would not let me go.

But the problem was this: As an adult I tried to build my life on the pillar of success rather than on the pillar of God’s love. After all, isn’t that what the world tells us to do? “Seek success. Be the best. Achieve at all costs. Be somebody!”

~~~

Years of senseless striving followed, filled mostly with feelings of intense failure. The very irony of trying to be somebody is that it blinds us to the fact that we are all born somebody simply because God created us and we are His. Our worth as men and women and the meaning of our lives are found only in Him.

~~~

Another memory: I am sitting by a roaring fire, singing songs with the Vanderbilts. Yes, the Vanderbilts of the Biltmore House. The great granddaughter of George Vanderbilt, the original owner of the Biltmore House, is a woman who goes by the nickname of Dini. Her father-in-law, also named George, is a friend of mine.

Some years ago, George invited Bob and me to a large gathering at his home outside of Asheville NC. While there, Bob and I joined George, Dini and others gathered by the fire. Dini offered me her chair, saying it was more comfortable than the one I had just sat down in. Someone had a guitar, and we all began to sing. Mostly gospel songs, like “I’ll Fly Away.”

Some glad morning, when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away, to that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away… When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away.

So there I was, with some of the most successful and wealthiest people in America, while my own accomplishments and worldly assets would barely fill a gnat’s ear. But what difference did it make? We all had the one important thing and we were all going to the same place.

George has told me this many times: “When you get the news that I’ve died, the first thing I want you to say is Hallelujah!” Certainly, George enjoys his kinship with the Biltmore House, but his heart is set on another Home.

~~~

Rubbish, is what the Apostle Paul called it—all his accomplishments, successes, worldly possessions. All rubbish compared to knowing Christ (Philippians 3:8). We all have work to do in this world, but work was never meant to be a means of self-advancement but a gift of service to God and others.

~~~

Another man of God, David Wilkerson, said this: “We are not called to be successes—to be free of all trouble, to be special, to ‘make it.’ Many are missing the one focus that is central to their lives: to become fruitful in the likeness of Christ.”*

~~~

Now at 60, I am fully back to the first love I knew at 6. Thank God and Hallelujah. There’s nothing quite like coming home. Peace prevails as I cast aside the thought that my life has to be a success story. Instead, I realize the one thing that matters is loving God most of all, and so I live my life as a love story with Him.

 

* God is Faithful by David Wilkerson, p. 349.

 

Cindy’s Story: I Am Who I Am

Even those who are outwardly successful often inwardly lack a sense of worth. So it was with my friend Cindy Sproles—novelist, ministry co-founder, conference director and so much more. The sense that we aren’t good enough can be a nagging lie that follows us relentlessly. For Cindy, the turnaround came when she realized her worth is ultimately found in the Great I Am. Here’s Cindy’s story…

I’m nothing special. That’s the lie I fight daily.

I’ve often wondered where that lie originated. My childhood was wonderful. There was never any abuse or brow beating. My folks were super parents, so it befuddles me, where this lie developed.

Maybe it came from being an “almost” only child. Twelve years separated my sweet brother from myself, and he was my hero when I was little. I never understood why my brother felt it necessary to marry and move away.

Perhaps it stemmed from having a multi-talented mom – an innovative, do-it-yourselfer, creative and determined to make things work. It was not uncommon for teachers to ask me to participate in things, so they could utilize Mom’s talents. My skills and abilities weren’t enough to land the honor on my own.

It could have been that, no matter how hard I tried, second place seemed my best. So much so, my high school track coach dubbed me Consistently Second Cindy – something that did nothing for my already floundering self-esteem.

I married in my early twenties, and when my husband divorced me and married another, I once again found myself living up to that title, Consistently Second.

It’s funny what happens to us when the cards are down. We can choose to play or call ourselves out. When I found myself a mom of two babies and divorced, I had to play. Despite the lie that plagued me, I went to my knees and asked God something simple.

“Lord, I’m not asking you to fix this. I’m just asking for the strength to open the blinds each day and see the sun. If I can see you in the day, then I can figure this out.”

Over the next 32 years God continued to give me the strength to open the blinds. He brought me into a relationship with a wonderful husband, who taught me I was worthy of love. He walked with us as we raised a blended family, sorted through the rough patch of one prodigal, and an adult child who hit upon tough times. He guided us with a son with disabilities. You name it, God lassoed us and pulled us through.

Still, with all these blessings, I never felt worthy or special. Was I so self-consumed that I couldn’t see my own self-worth?

I wasn’t self-consumed, I just didn’t believe. Not in God – of course I believed in God, but I didn’t believe Him. And it took a walk in the desert of life to finally make the connection. For a time, it was like God had turned His back on me. I walked through this hot, sandy desert of emptiness. It was as though I could see the oasis in the distance, but one foot was nailed deep into the sand and all I could do was walk in circles, catching a glimpse of relief with each lap.

It took this time of reflection to let go of the lie that was tight in my fist. That’s when the realization took hold and I learned to believe God had made me special and worthy.

I began to seek after my own dreams. Writing was always a love, but nothing I’d considered a passion until a minister friend read some of my work and took the step he knew I’d never take on my own. He signed me up for a writers’ conference and paid for me to attend.

I attended with only a few little pieces I’d written for my children, but once the door opened to the conference, amazing things flooded in. Authors, agents, and publishers took notice. My work was rough, but they saw something. They saw heart. Desire. Passion.

After I returned home, I spent some quiet time with God, having this conversation:

“Lord, you’ve strengthened me through the years. Helped me open the blinds. What do I do with this writing? There’s so much to learn.”

“Then learn.”

“But, what about. . .”

“About what? I’ve strengthened you over the years. Prepared you. You simply have to believe me.”

That day, I believed God had a plan. That He’d gifted me.

Consistently Second Cindy grew into the gifts God had given her and what I found was an amazing success. Not just in my writing and publication, but success within myself.

The question was not, did I believe in Christ, rather it was DID I BELIEVE HIM?

I’ve learned over time that I am who I am. Always worthy. Always special. And though my writing career began later in life, the passion of a loving God solidified a fearful, seemingly unworthy gal into a grateful, truth-seeking woman.

I still have days when the lie creeps up on me, but when I believe the Great I Am, then I am who I am and it’s good.

Cindy Sproles Cindy Sproles

Those Who Inspire No Envy

In 2016, God sent me back to school. Not to earn another master’s degree or a doctorate, but to learn what I couldn’t learn in any other way. He placed me as a cashier in the university’s food court.

~~~

I suppose I really began to learn the lesson on the day I went to the dentist. At the end of the checkup he told me I needed two crowns and a root canal. I left the dental office feeling dazed, like I’d been hit on the back of the head. Fixing my teeth would cost many thousands of dollars, and I didn’t have—nor could I ever conceive of having—that amount of money.* What happens, I wondered, when a person doesn’t fix her teeth? Do they just rot and fall out?

From there, I went on to work. The first person to greet me when I walked in was Angelo, one of the men who stocks the packaged food and drinks. He offered me a big smile, and when he did, I noticed what I hadn’t noticed before. Many of his teeth were missing. Those that remained were chipped and broken.

When a person grows up financially secure like I did, she thinks everyone goes to the dentist to have their teeth fixed. But when I looked at Angelo’s smile, I realized—no, not everyone. What was normal to me as a child is to some an unattainable privilege. That day, I didn’t sympathize with Angelo; I empathized. I understood him, because we were in the same place.

~~~

The people I work with at the food court aren’t seeking success. They are mostly trying simply to survive. Many work two jobs; some work three. Some work seven days a week with no days off. Some work day shifts and night shifts both, leaving their night job in the morning to go to their day job. A number are ill with diseases like diabetes and kidney failure. Some are crippled with arthritis. They come to work in pain and go home in pain.

These are the people no one envies and no one aspires to be like. Who dreams of becoming a sixty-year-old cashier whose legs are bowed with rheumatism? Who yearns to be a single mother who works at the food court and at Burger King both, yet still can’t make ends meet? Who hopes to grow up to become a middle-aged stock boy with broken teeth?

~~~

I love these people. Every day they greet me with smiles, with hugs, with enthusiastic cries of “Hi, Miss Ann!” While we work we grab a few minutes here and there to talk, swap stories, laugh. While there are the usual personality conflicts, I more often see kindness and encouragement. Once, to my surprise, Miss Merle threw her big arms around me and gave me a smothering hug. She just wanted to tell me she loves me.

~~~

Merle is one of the kitchen workers. She stands all day at a counter making sandwiches. She isn’t young and she isn’t small, so she’s asking a lot of her feet. One thing I’ve learned about Merle is that she loves Jesus heart and soul. I once went into the ladies bathroom to wash my hands, and as I stood at the sink I heard music coming from one of the stalls. The next thing I knew, Merle burst out of the stall holding her phone and singing along to a gospel song. She shimmied down to the sink where she spent the next few minutes dancing and praising God, singing at the top of her pipes about the day she would be home in glory. I listened happily, delighted to be her captive audience. It was one of the most inspiring concerts I’ve ever attended, performed by a solitary black woman in the bathroom of a university food court. It seemed even a momentarily holy place, filled with joy.

~~~

Kevin is another one of our stockers. He doesn’t talk much. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you might think he was mute. When I ask him to bring us something from the supply room, he merely nods, one small lift of his head. Though he doesn’t talk about it, the large silver cross he wears around his neck offers an inkling as to his beliefs. Sometimes his apparent reticence gives way to quiet acts of kindness. Last Valentine’s Day he came to work bearing a huge bouquet of roses. It wasn’t meant for anyone, but for everyone. That is, he wanted to make sure all his female co-workers got a flower on Valentine’s Day. No one was to be forgotten. I was touched when he laid a rose—without a word—by my register, though he appeared and disappeared so quickly I couldn’t even thank him.

~~~

Sherrie is one who works two jobs. She spends the week making pizza and pasta and on the weekend she works at Costco. Except for holidays, she has no days off. How, I wondered, does anyone work seven days a week without having a single day of rest to look forward to? I for one would soon drop from physical and mental exhaustion. And so I asked her, “Sherrie, how do you work so much?” And without a moment’s hesitation she told me her secret in two amazing words: “God’s grace.”

~~~

When I’m at the food court, I look around and see the people that most of society deem invisible. They are just too far down on the social stratum even to be noticed. But I know this much is true: In this place of struggle and obscurity where no one wants to be, God is here. Grace is at work. Hope is real. And the love of God elevates even the least of us to a place of glory.

* The Lord later provided the full amount for the root canal, for which I am continually thankful.

My Father’s Final Words

My Father’s Final Words to Me…

January 1, 2013. First day of a new year, supposedly a day of new beginnings, but I had no idea something would happen that day to change the way I lived my life.

It had started much like any other day, with me waking up to a sense of futility. Just a regular day of wondering what on earth I was on earth for. By mid-morning, I was so depressed I packed up all the copies I had of the books I’d written and carried them down to the laundry room to store. I didn’t want to look at them anymore. The sight of them only deepened my feelings of failure.

There was a time I believed God called me to be a writer. I was 18 years old in 1978 when writing became my goal, and between that time and January 1, 2013, I devoted all my time and effort to learning the craft and serving God through the written word. Some people thought that because I had published some novels and won some awards I had succeeded, but I knew differently. Because while in my outer life I was writing and editing and teaching, in my inner life I was someone who wasn’t good at all at running this seemingly mandatory race toward success, the race that—let’s face it—we’re all in as we clamber to be a winner, to be the best.

The voices that told me I wasn’t good enough started in childhood. I “heard” them all the time, the taunting loop of accusations that no matter how hard I tried, I would never make anything worthwhile of my life.

By my mid-twenties, as a person whose mind dealt in imagery and symbols, I began to picture all the negative thoughts and feelings as a knife to my head. For the next three decades the knife was always there, right at my temple, reminding me that my own mediocrity held me locked in a place of insignificance.

Still, I ran. I continued in the pursuit of success because, after all, that’s what we’re supposed to do during our one brief foray through the land of the living.

But by January 1, 2013, I was tired. I couldn’t keep running. I decided to admit defeat and be done with it. I sat on the boxes of books in the laundry room and cried.

After a time, Brenda, my father’s part-time caretaker, called to me from upstairs. Dad had lived with us for more than two years, and now he was bedridden and dying. “Ann, your dad wants to see you!”

“All right,” I hollered back. “I’m coming!”

I dried my tears, left my books behind, and climbed the two staircases up to my father’s room. He lay in his hospital bed, his face turned toward the window and the mountains beyond.

“Hey, Dad,” I said, “I’m here.”

He rolled over and started to smile, but then his eyes grew wide with concern. He raised a frail hand and brushed at the air beside my head. And then he whispered the words that would eventually change my life: “Take the knife out of your hair.” I frowned and leaned in closer to make sure I was hearing him right. He said it again, quietly but firmly. “Take the knife out of your hair.”

And with that, he withdrew his hand, rolled toward the window, and went back to sleep.

…And How They are Changing My Life

Some might say that my father’s words were the senseless rambling of a dying brain. And they may be right. But they may be wrong. A friend of mine, a hospice nurse, says that in the last two weeks of life, those who are dying begin to see the spiritual world. In other words, they begin to see the things that are really there. Two weeks after his final words to me, Dad died.

In the weeks and months following my father’s death, as I thought about his words, I came to understand two things. First, that the knife to my head was undoubtedly an accumulation of lies perpetrated by the one who works to destroy our lives, and that I ought to tell those lies to go back to the hell from which they came.

The second revelation rose up as a memory. When I was 20, a friend and I went to Times Square on New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop. Neither of us being native New Yorkers, we emerged from the subway into the festive crowd and realized we were lost. We were in the right place but we didn’t know which way to turn to see the famous lighted ball. We asked a man beside us for help, and he pointed upward and said, “Keep your eye on that building.” And so we did, and at 12:00 everyone cheered and hugged and kissed and by 12:05 the crowd was already breaking up, and my friend and I looked at each other with the realization that the ball had dropped somewhere and we hadn’t seen it. Either our erstwhile tour guide had himself been misled or perhaps he had thrown back one too many drinks and was a little lost himself, but in the end he had us looking in the wrong direction. True, we’d been in Times Square on New Year’s Eve and had enjoyed the celebration, but even so we had missed the main event.

And that, God told me, was how I had been living my life. If there is something called a great salvation party, a celebration of eternal grace among believers, I have been right there in the midst of it all my life, having joined the festivities as a child. But at the same time, some worldly hand—our entire culture, I suppose, spearheaded by a powerful and powerfully misguided media—had me looking in the wrong direction and away from the main event, because the finger was pointing toward some glittering but ultimately inconsequential place called Success.

It took me a good long while to change the way I think, and in fact almost six years later I’m still working on it. It’s hard to think one way when every day you’re inundated by messages from the world around you that you should be thinking another way. Because the world says, “Live your life as a success story!” But that’s not what God says.

Through my father’s final words, God told me, “Forget success. That’s not why I created you. I want you to live your life as a love story with me.”

And that’s it. Loving God is the main event. Loving him is the whole point of our existence. And so I’m changing out the success-story fable for a true love story. As lies fall away, love flows in. I’m spending my time loving the One who created me to love him because, wonder of wonders, he first loved me.