A story of deliverance from religious pride and legalismby Joan Hershberger
My story is not one of a miraculous deliverance from a life on skid row. Instead it is a miraculous story of God's amazing grace to deliver me from religious pride and legalism and the story of God’s great faithfulness.
Born into a Christian home, I knew nothing but church, and we were there every time the doors were opened. Grandpa was the preacher, my parents were involved in church and we were expected to be "good examples." I had a happy, secure childhood and was basically a compliant child.
My first big change in life was when I married Lee Hershberger. Being shy, I had to learn to live with an extrovert—a real people person. But I grew to love it because I loved him and loved our life together. When we married, we moved away from our home communities and settled in one of the poorest sections of Indiana, in a community where for nearly 20 years we were involved in a small Mennonite mission.
There were not a lot of issues to grapple with because people could either fit into our self-made "boxes" or they'd go elsewhere. I am thankful for my upbringing and the many good things I learned, but at this point I was allowing religious pride to slip into my life, and to my regret, too much of that service was done out of our own capabilities and the desire to "do" something for God.
There is a difference between doing and being. I knew I was doing and thought I was being, but after many years the Lord tugged at our hearts. We felt dissatisfied, dry and fruitless. The Christian life had to consist of more than we were experiencing. God was bringing us to the end of ourselves and our capabilities.
After much soul searching, tears and prayers, we felt the Lord calling us away from that church to another small Mennonite mission nearby. This church was just beginning to experience growth; the Spirit of God was moving among them, and God put us there at the beginning of a movement of God. How good his timing is! Our oldest children were teenagers by then, and I praise God now for directing us in that way. I don't know where they would be today if we had not been obedient/
I felt like Linus as my old security blanket was snatched away from me, but oh the refreshing and the pouring out of fresh water on my dry, thirsty soil! This was where I began to see a church function in grace instead of law. People were drawn to this out-of-the-way place in the middle of nowhere because of the love and the sense of God's presence that was there. It was a time of learning and growing and watching God do marvelous things in people's lives. What was one of the most difficult periods in my life turned into one of the greatest blessings.
But the blessings were not realized overnight. Being a church with so much diversity and so many changes did not come without problems. People did not fit into neat little boxes. During these years we served as an elder couple and later as mercy deacons—responsible for giving assistance to the physical needs in the church and in the community.
This is when we met "the cat lady." Answering a call for assistance for a homeless lady with many cats (the reason she was homeless), we allowed her and her dozens of cats to stay in our backyard shed for a few weeks—“just until we got her vehicle fixed and got her on her feet”—not the four or five months and many more cats later that it turned out to be. Becoming involved with people puts you in the middle of many situations and supplies lots of experiences—challenging us in showing love and grace—something we were still learning ourselves.
These midlife years involved watching our children struggle to find themselves and their life purposes, going through high school, college, weddings and giving us grandchildren.
Meanwhile, the church grew to birth a couple more churches, experience tragedy at one and battle the enemy with trying to bring in some unbalanced beliefs. We saw spurts of growth and periods of discipling. Later it seemed like swinging doors, with some leaving and others coming.
I'll never forget the times of prayer with all the leaders prostrated on the floor before God, begging him for right answers to those who felt differently about Christmas and wanted it to become church rules, or the time we arrived at church one Sunday morning with the piano gone. A family who had previously donated the piano left, and when they left, it left. Changes and difficulties always seemed to press us in to Jesus. Because of that, these were good years.
After serving there for 28 years, we figured we were about retirement age. After all, my husband was 72 years old, and I wasn't too far behind, all but one of our children and grandchildren lived within 20 miles of us, and we were comfortable. Lee loved his sales job, and his hours were flexible.
Then God went and upset the apple cart. One time while visiting our daughter in Mississippi, we were approached about going to Macon, Miss., to serve as interim pastor at Cornerstone Community Church. How absurd was that! We laughed it off for a while; after all, Lee had never been a "pastor," had only a few short terms of Bible school and was not educated. Surely not us. But the Lord nudged us, and we thought maybe we should at least pray about it. After a while, we decided to move. In 2002, we sold our home to our son, downsized and moved 700 miles from most of our family and from where we fully expected to spend our final days.
The years since then have been some of the most rewarding and fruitful years of our lives. We had so much joy in obeying God's call again. We loved Mississippi. We loved the church there and the people in it. Life was good. Then the big blow came: Lee had cancer. He was in remission for a short time, but it was unrelenting. He fought a courageous battle and never complained, but less than two years later, in 2006, the Lord took Lee home to heaven.
Everything I had known for over 53 years was suddenly gone; my world came crashing down around me. I had been through difficult times before—the church transition, sleepless nights praying for children who were "trying their wings," dealing with church problems—but I had never experienced the death of a spouse. But because I could look back at mile markers along my life journey and see where God had been faithful, I felt assured he would not fail me now. Lee's prayer was answered, and he lived until he was able to personally pray a blessing over each of his 21 grandchildren. His prayer from Philippians 1:12-14 was realized. "Lord, after this suffering, let it be said that what has happened to me has served to advance the gospel. As a result, make my Savior clear to all those around me. Because of my suffering and willing perseverance, cause others to be encouraged to speak the Word of God more courageously and fearlessly." God was so faithful.
It is a new life for me, but God is teaching me to trust him. One of the hard lessons I had to learn was to accept what God had allowed in my life and the new role he had given me, that of being a widow. He had allowed me the role of wife and mother, and I loved it, but I did not ask for this role. I had to find rest in God's promise in Psalm 138:8: “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever” and in Lamentations 3:22-23: "His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness."
So what have these life experiences taught me? One thing I'm learning is that I am never done learning, and I hope I never will be. God is teaching me still. But there are some things I am realizing more and more.
I am learning the importance of relationships and the unimportance of things. Cultivate relationships now for future memories, which will mean so much then. Build your marriage so that when your children are gone you will still have a marriage. Build memories with your children so that they have roots to hold them when they take wing and when the ground shakes beneath their feet. Build friendships; don’t wait to be hospitable or be shown hospitality. Get rid of the stuff in your life so there is room for people.
I am learning to walk by faith, not fear. God regards faith highly and has a strategy for developing it. He gets us climbing after him, and when we are committed to the path, he points down, and we notice there is no safety net. God’s best moments for us are when we dare all on him alone, when all our usual ropes and nets have been removed and all we have is him. Real faith loves tough situations, for that is where God works most often.
It sure felt like all security nets were gone when we changed churches or moved to Mississippi. Changes can be scary. Beth Moore says: “We can refuse to walk in obedience to God or cower in fear from our calling, and he will undoubtedly still accomplish his agenda. As for us, however, we will pass up the fulfillment of our entire life purpose and will miss a mighty work.” I am still learning not to fear the future, being alone, the what ifs. God says, “Trust me," not "Trust me not to let it happen." Again I remind myself, He’s been faithful in the past. Will he not be faithful in my future?
I need to be grounded in the Word because that is where I find truth and strength. I can still hear Lee quoting something that impressed him years ago: "Like the hot dry winds of the desert drive away all sources of vegetation, so the fiery darts of the enemy drive away all traces of a Christian life unless it is fortified by the Word of God." Amen.
God is teaching me I need to grow from my difficult experiences. If we will be the same tomorrow as today, then we don't need a tomorrow. It’s usually in the hard times that we grow the most, and I need those times.
Always, but especially in hard times, I need to keep my focus on God, not my circumstances. I try to look for small miracles and graces he sends my way to remind me he is there and cares. Little things, like running across a friend in a restaurant I can eat with, a note of encouragement, sunshine when I need it most.
Recognizing God’s faithfulness to me through hard times in the past gives me hope for tomorrow. Hope allows us to see beyond the muck of today to the promises of tomorrow. It is not how well I started but how strong I finish that counts. A victorious life is only the sum of victorious days. So each day I need to remind myself of God’s faithfulness and make that my focus.
My life is indeed different these days. Living alone gives me freedom to do many things I did not do before. I want to fill my life with experiences, not excuses. Hospice meant so much to us when Lee was ill, so one new experience I enjoy is volunteering with them every week. I have had contact with many other widows in my area and try to encourage them. We all need to be encouragers—becoming oxygen to those around us—and I find that gives oxygen back to me. Someone once said, "One of the highest human duties, is the duty of encouragement."
As followers of Christ we are commanded to build others up by highlighting what's good instead of magnifying what's bad, by seeing them as unique individuals instead of stereotypes, by respecting instead of ridiculing, by forgiving instead of shaming, by modeling unconditional love instead of love with strings attached, by applauding each step of growth instead of saying, "They'll never change," by seeing their God-given potential instead of seeing them as problems to be handled. It’s seeing them through the eyes of grace instead of law.
As I age, Psalm 92:13-15 has become increasingly special to me. Speaking of the righteous, it says: "They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap, showing that the Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him." Chuck Swindoll says: "No one fails to see that growing old has its difficulties and heartaches. It does indeed. But to see only the hot sands of your desert experience and miss the lovely oasis here and there (though they may be few) is to turn the latter part of your journey through life into an arid, tasteless endurance contest that makes everyone miserable." Oh, yes, I still have difficulties, times of loneliness, and I struggle sometimes with the what ifs, but God is faithful. At every milestone in my life, he's been there cheering me on, sometimes carrying me, sometimes giving me a little shove. He's never failed me yet, and I know he never will.
I read a magazine article a couple years ago by a women who was dying of cancer. It was titled "My Fantastic Final Journey," and she wrote, "None of us is promised tomorrow, which makes me wonder if maybe we all shouldn’t be living as if we’re on our final journey home.” She goes on to say (and I agree): "Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming, 'Wow. What a ride!' " What a ride indeed. And what a faithful God to ride with me!
Joan Hershberger is a member of Cornerstone Community Church in Macon, Miss.
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