by Dawn Smiling

I was so young.  I remember like yesterday.  I knew him since I was a baby. At least it feels that way.  Truly it did.  My mommy took me to church and I sat in the front pew.  My twin sister and I were only eight or nine years old, and we were singing the praises of God.  We were devotional leaders. One day a visiting Pastor came and asked me to come to the front.  I was around 10 years old, but I remember like yesterday.  He said I would see my friends saved, and I would see my family saved.  I could not understand what he was talking about.  But he put his hand on my head and prayed for me. 

I grew from nine years old as a devotional leader, to a member of the Mount Calvary Choir in New York City.  I was 16, in my robe and so excited.  I was singing a song and all of a sudden a feeling came over me.  The feeling went right through me from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet.  I began to shout in that small Pentecostal church.  Have you ever been in an African American church when the Holy Spirit comes in?  We tend to get a little physical!  I began to lift my hands and shout like David.  I danced all over the choir stand until I could not dance anymore.  I was in love.  For the first time in my life, I felt God touch me, and life has never been the same.

While I was elated in my new experience, Satan was not.  I was the first member of my household to be saved.  Mommy and daddy were not saved.  My sisters were not saved. There was now a light in the house, and I had to learn how to walk without the benefit of living in a Christian household.  It was difficult.  It was rewarding and lonely at the same time.  At church I felt the peace of God, and I excelled, but at home there was confusion that I really could not explain. My dad had a drinking problem, and in high school there were peer pressures that I could not handle.  God really had a time with me. 

I found myself caving into the pressures, and I wandered away from God.  How could I leave my first love?  Real love is not always understood.  When the test came, it was hard to stand.  Pastor Craig spoke about our DNA this past January.  I simply did not know who I was.  I didn’t have the strength to go on.  My friends were dating.  My sisters were partying.  I tried to serve God and keep up with society.  I remember coming home from a party and I had a couple of drinks.  My stomach was so sick.  I came home and crawled into my mother’s bed.  She looked at me at said, “Dawn, you will never fit in the world. That life is not for you.”  I never forgot her words, but I still had a few more tests.  I became pregnant at 20.  My mother was so disappointed in me, but I still felt her love.  When I had my beautiful daughter, something clicked in me.  I realized I had a gift and God saw something in me.  I went back to God.  I went back to my first love, and entered the ministry. 

I preached my first sermon in my twenties.  We might change our direction, but God never changes His plan.  He said, “I am God, and I change not.”  One day I preached a sermon, and my twin sister came to the altar and gave her heart to the Lord.  Another Sunday I preached a message, and my mother gave her heart to the Lord. My dad eventually stopped drinking and came to know that God loved him.   I began to see God always had a purpose for my life.  It all started with a light in the house.

God has strengthened me over the years.  It was love at first site for God. A lesson I needed to learn.   I have entered a place where no matter what battle I face, God loved me first.  He created me to be a part of this beautiful place called life.  Not a life of perfection, a life lived in holiness walking with Him.

The recent television series “The Bible” has been a beautiful reminder brought back to life.  Sometimes we need a reminder of the price Jesus paid for our salvation experiences.  As Jesus carried the cross down the Via Dolorosa, I realize this walk is a journey, and in Christ, we are never alone.

 

Dawn Smiling enjoys volunteering at Grace Family Church as a prayer counselor, part of the soul care ministry, and as a table leader for Beautiful Monday Nights.

 

In April on A Beautiful Blog, we’ll be hearing from our writers about how they came to know God on a personal level. For some, God was always a part of their lives. For others, they were adults when they invited Him in. No matter when it occured, they each share that life would never be the same once Jesus became Lord of their lives.

by Julie Jaunese

For me, this is where it all began. Wayside Baptist Church, 1941. I wasn’t born until 1950 and this picture was taken 18 years before I was baptized in the new baptismal fount my grandfather helped install, but it is where my parents and grandparents learned to love God, trust Him and become faithful. They began feeding it into me when I was born.

I don’t have a time I don’t remember knowing the Lord as my very personal savior.  My grandparents and all 11 of their children were “charter members” of Wayside Baptist Church.  My Mom made sure we were in church every Sunday.  The rule was, “if you were too sick to go to church, you were too sick to go ANYWHERE else that day.”  We used the same rule at our house when our girls were growing up.  

Is there a disadvantage to not being able to put a date on my salvation? I don’t think so. I only see the advantages.

For example, one advantage is I never went through a rebellious stage because I was afraid of disappointing God.  We know He is a forgiving God, but He does have expectations clearly spelled out in His word.  Did I ever do anything wrong? Yes, but the difference was I was willing and had a desire to go immediately to Him and ask for forgiveness.  I remember once when I was in high school, I skipped school with a couple of friends one day.  By noon I left them and went to the school and turned myself in for skipping.  Of course the school didn’t know what to do with someone who came and turned themselves in.  I was a first.  I just didn’t want to disappoint God with my behavior.

God’s word tells parents to teach their children about God CONSTANTLY.  He tells parents to teach children when you are walking, when you are eating, when you are getting ready for bed, when you are traveling, when you are just sitting and talking to each other.  Like I said – CONSTANTLY!  In the case of my life, when you have parents and grandparents who have followed God’s word throughout their lives, they constantly tell you about Him. Then you spend more time in His word and easily discover what He wants for your life.  

My women’s small group is reading a book called The Burning Heart Contract by Becky Tirabassi.  I was struck by a paragraph at the end of the first chapter.  The author was standing in front of the student body at a college in California.  She said to them, “Society gives you all the permission you need to live on your terms.  You don’t need any more permission.  But here’s what I believe God wants me to call you to – holiness and purity.” 

I have loved God all my life, but today I see such struggles in people that want to come to God but are trying to hold on to their own way. Some don’t mind holiness, but the purity part of God they don’t want to accept. But true freedom comes when you give your heart to the Lord and begin to follow His word.  For me it began as a child, and today there is not a day of regret.  What is taking you so long to find God?  He is totally worth it!

 

Julie Jaunese has been married to her husband Michael for 41 years. She has two daughters and three grandchildren. She works at Moffitt Cancer Center and hosts two women’s small groups, the Yada Book Club and the Fabulous Fems. Mike and Julie have been part of Grace Family Church since it began with 40 people in a house.

 

by Sheryl Lullen

I have been a single mom for 18 years. Despite the obstacles that come with single parenting, my children and I can reminisce on the fun times we’ve had and the times God has blessed our family over and over again. But during those years, I put up a wall that had insecurity written all over it. I have known and loved God for many years and He has given me such an abundant life, but there were so many parts of my life that had been scarred and I carried them deep within my soul. I moved through life eager to please others, looking for God to bless me for things that I did. The truth is I was living my life through others, always willing to give great, Godly advice, but would turn the other way when it came to me. I was hiding them from everyone, even God, or so I thought. Scared to let people in, unwilling to be in the company of good people, I felt uneasy many times because of my past hurts, frustrations and battles.

God revealed the problem to me in five words, “You have a callused heart. “ I heard it and first believed it to be the devil trying to throw more mud my way. But God has a way of showing up and revealing truths to you in a way the devil could never pull off. He reminded me that He has plans for my life. Plans to prosper me, not harm me. Plans to heal me, not hurt me. Plans to strip away the strife that had kept me from believing what He had placed inside of me. He was slowly but surely building me up.

About this time, I heard a message by Pat Layton at A Beautiful Weekend about hearing the voice of God. In her talk, she reminded us that we were like pebbles of sand on a beach in which God could reach down and distinctively choose me out of every other grain of sand. She said, “We are so uniquely made by the Father that we can’t hide under all the other sand. And when He wants to take hold of you, you can’t hide.” During this session I found myself sobbing uncontrollably and falling to my knees. It was as if I was the only one in the room. I was in the presence of the Almighty God and He was repairing my callused heart, stripping away the hard pieces, layer-by-layer until it became new again. I told God I was hurting. He said, “No, you’re healing.” I did a lot of crying that night, but I learned the real meaning of Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” A beautiful sunset greeted me the next morning. As I look back on that weekend, I have to stop and thank God for knocking down those walls of containment that kept me from seeing His truth years ago.

Since that weekend, I have taken on new things, including co-leading a small group of single moms. God knew I had a testimony that would encourage other single moms to seek Him first in all our endeavors.

God is not finished with me yet. A full restoration is in progress but I know who I am in Him and He loves me even in the rebuilding process, (when things aren’t always so pretty). He still sees me as the apple of his eye. So watch out world! My transformation is unfolding and for the first time in a long time I can look into the mirror and actually like what I see.

 

Sheryl Lullen loves to go to movies and write in her free time. She is mom to an adult son and daughter, and works as an operation zone manager for Walmart. She serves as co-leader of a single moms small group and in the Connect 2 booth at GFC.

by Dani Catherine

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:5

At this very second, you may be discouraged about your life and feel like you’re in a dark place. Life may seem like nothing is going right or like nothing is in your favor. Maybe you’re saying “I don’t even love myself…so why would anybody else love or care for me?” Or maybe you’re asking the questions, “God, what am I doing to deserve this? Will I ever get out of this storm?”

I know that feeling and those thoughts, because I have been there. I suffered from depression for a countless number of years and have fought tooth and nail to come out the other end. It was hard, embarrassing, and unbearable at times; some days I didn’t get out of bed, I didn’t want to eat and I couldn’t find a reason to smile. Depression soon became my identity. That coupled with society’s label of depression and mental health issues, I was convinced I had no chance of coming out the other end alive. But in the midst of my despair, doubt, sadness, and hopelessness, I knew that Jesus Christ had another view of life to offer me; a BEAUTIFUL life.

The only person that could give me more light and love than any dark place could absorb, was Jesus.

There was no way I was letting the enemy win. I started to speak scripture over my depression (as well as seek counseling from a professional and others around me) and stood upon the reality of God’s word. I kept reminding myself that all things were working together for my good! I started to accept my circumstances and realized that God had not forsaken me, and that the storm I was going through would glorify God in the end.  In Philippians 4:4 it says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say REJOICE! That was the scripture I carried with me (and still do to this day). I thought the answer was running from my circumstances and withdrawing from life, but God’s word says it…RISE ABOVE WITH PRAISE!

I am here to tell you WILL get through this storm and gain freedom! God will not leave you where you are. Rejoice in your suffering and sadness, know that you have a Savior that died for you so that you could live a beautiful life. Also, don’t be embarrassed to talk about it to others or a counselor; seek help and guidance. God doesn’t want you going through this storm alone – press into Him! He is there and has always been there. He wants you to cast your burdens on Him! I have faith that the Lord is using each of your storms for His good and there is light ahead of your darkness! Keep having faith and know that you are NOT alone!

 

Dani Catherine loves to bake, paint, snap photos and spend time with her loved ones. Dani enjoys leading a table at Beautiful Monday nights and loves to volunteer as much as she can at Grace Family Church.

by Leah Martorana

Proverbs 4:25 “Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you.”

It’s no secret I’ve been wrestling with whether or not I should stay home full time since before my son, Max, was even born. I was familiar with the moms returning from maternity leave. I saw their internal struggle as they sat in my office and filled out paperwork on their first day back. We would have casual conversation as if this would call less attention to the fact this was the day they had been dreading for three months. Don’t get me wrong. Many of these moms were successful women who had dreamed of being attorneys from the time they were little girls. The problem was, they had also dreamed of being moms since they were little girls. How were they to balance it all? Finances aside, why did they feel they were expected to balance it all?

For the first six months after Max was born, I tried to answer these questions for myself while I tried my best to make “balance” happen by splitting my time between work and home. Things were “under control” for awhile. Groceries? Check. Bedtime routine? Check. Dinner schedule? Check. Budget? Check. House cleaning? Check. Babysitter? Check. Work responsibilities? Check. The core of the problem was that at the end of the day I had no energy to devote to the people I was checking things off for. Wasn’t the purpose of being home to soak up time with my little one? To learn about being the best mom and wife I could be?

My husband, Mark, and I talked about this a lot. I prayed. We prayed. He prayed. After all that I still didn’t feel like I had a clear answer. One night my sweet husband sat down with me and said, “Leah, walk me through your reasons for wanting to stay at work.” I listed them off one by one.

1) I’m afraid you won’t be as proud of me if I am at home.
2) I’m worried I won’t feel fulfilled.
3) I’ll miss my friends.
4) I don’t want people to say I couldn’t do it.
5) What if we can’t make the budget work?

With each reason I listed it became more clear. Mark looked and me and said what I knew deep down, “None of those reasons are of God.” He was right. The things that kept me hanging on were fear, pride and worry. Things God wanted me to be free of!

So last October I decided to break up with my job. I cut the cord, ripped off the band-aid and didn’t look back. Things are much different, but now I know that different is okay. Actually, different is great! I’m seeing God in brand new ways because our new reality demands more trust. The more I trust, the more freedom I receive. Sometimes getting by just seems impossible. And then, it happens….God comes through in the way only He can and I am free to focus.

Faith is what makes real the things we hope for. It is proof of what we cannot see.” Hebrews 11:1

 

Leah Martorana has been married to her husband, Mark, for 4 years and is enjoying her new role as mommy to 1 year old, Maxwell.  She is the co-leader of Beautiful Moms at Grace Family Church. Leah enjoys anything creative, from cooking to crafting.