I grew up in a world full of deep wounds, both inside my family and outside.
When I was five, the cane-shaking lady next door sprayed her blackberry bushes with poison so the neighborhood kids wouldn’t eat the renegade berries that spilled over her fence into the common alley. I didn’t understand that as I popped a huge handful into my mouth.
“You’re going to die! You’re going to die!” she screamed at me after seeing my purple stained cheeks.
I shook and cried, flailing myself on my bed. I obviously lived, but the fear of death took root in my heart.
That same year, I faced more devastation. Watch here to see:
As a result, I felt dirty, unwanted, uncared for, and quite alone.
This is what I looked like then at five years old. Even seeing me now trembles me. Just knowing what happened, and how those eyes could smile even after what those boys did to me. I attribute my joy and survival to God’s sweet grace, and a providential move far, far away from the neighborhood bullies.
At ten years old, my world crumbled again when my biological father died. He’d been my hero, so his sudden, tragic loss sent me reeling. My fear of death magnified. A giant hole opened up in me. A daddy-shaped hole that sat unfilled. It seemed to grow every year, and the loneliness I felt without him sometimes felt stifling. Too much. Too hard. Too much grief for a girl ten years old.
I fought my emotions, tried to wrangle them into submission. But they weren’t easily managed. They stayed deep inside and erupted when I didn’t want them to.
I spent my sixth grade year making a decision. I would be a success. I would fill my great big hole with academic prowess. So I worked hard. From that point on, I would get an A in every subject I took.
But I still missed my father, and I clung to my stepdad and mom, hoping they wouldn’t die, all the while fearing death would nab me.
During junior high, life felt unbearable and I considered killing myself--even though I feared death. My mom’s marriage to my stepdad disintegrated and I frequently broke down at school, wracked with tears. A counselor gave me a hall pass so I could leave class at any time and cry, cry, cry to my heart’s discontent. I didn’t know why I was on this earth. What could possibly be my purpose?
Skinny (scrawny, really) and awkward, I longed for a boyfriend to fill that aching need, but few came, and when a boy would show his interest, I would freak out and run the other way. If a boy tried to kiss me, I would break up, not able to cope with the fear that he would do far more. I wanted love and affection, but my fear pushed any semblance of that away.
I continued down the road to academic success, sang solos, and tried to fill my heart up with school. But the empty part of me remained.
Then came hope!
My freshman year of high school, a friend invited me to Young Life. Every time the speaker said, “Jesus,” my heart pounded. The leader ended one of his talks by asking, “What kind of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?” (Matthew 8:27)
The question echoed through my mind throughout the summer before my sophomore year. By the time I went to a Young Life weekend camp in the fall of that next school year, my heart longed to know this Jesus. When the camp speaker spoke of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I knew I wanted to follow Him the rest of my life.
I sat under an evergreen tree that evening and looked up into the star-pocked night, searching for the face of God. In that moment I gave Him my heart, life, past, pains, countless tears, and wounds of my childhood to the Father who would never leave me, to the God who conquered death. Here’s my retelling of that event:
I’ve sought after him ever since. I didn’t instantly heal, though. The road back to an uncaged, freedom-infused life has been long and tenuous. I’ve still dealt with a Daddy hole, but God is good to bring wholeness in those empty parts.
The healing came when I chose to no longer be silent. When I decided it was time to tell my story, ask for prayer, and trust God to heal me. A life of secrets seldom heals. I explain it more here:
Today I’m a happily married (22+ years) mother of three. I’m still learning how to live free from the past, to rejoice in the great right now. What used to be a shameful, scary story is now my testimony of an uncaged life.
I’ve written about it in my memoir, Thin Places.
I’m no longer the little girl who shuddered at the thought of death, post-berry-eating. I’m not the girl who experienced repeated rape at five. I’m not the daughter who lost a father to the specter of death. I’m not the teenager bent on destroying herself. I’m not the look-at-me-notice-me young adult who needed success to be her god.
I’m simply Mary, loved wildly by Jesus. And my greatest desire and joy is to share that message of hope with you, to see you experience the Everything Life Jesus wants to give you. Here’s me doing just that:
My prayer for you? That in the pages of my books, you’ll meet this same Jesus who can take your deepest wounds, and darkest trials, and turn them into impossible joy. I’m a walking testimony to the healing grace of God. I embody and delight in this verse:
“Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1: 26-29, NLT).
I was powerless, despised, counted as nothing and unimportant. But God saw differently. He rescued me. He knew that scared little girl would someday grow up and tell her story of redemption.
I’m utterly and profoundly grateful to my dear, dear Jesus who set me free from the fear of death and filled up my heart.
Mind if I pray for you?
Jesus, please heal my friend who is reading this prayer. Bring redemption where there’s devastation, hope where there’s despair, and joy where there’s been sorrow. Fill up any remaining holes and bring wholeness today. Help us all know that You love us desperately and gently woo us toward healing and freedom. Help us to tell the truth about what happened back then so we can be set free from the secrets. Meet us where we are, in the broken, needy places, and help us to truly understand what it means to live an uncaged life, fully alive, fully alert in the moment. Bring impossible joy to our todays. Amen.