Guarding My Heart Part 1: Questions that Defined Me

"I'm just not there right now."
To this day, those words still make me cringe. On the day those words pierced my heart -- I looked lovely, my hair curled and my makeup soft and feminine. I was wearing my Sunday pearls and I looked the part of a romantic heroine. It was Easter Sunday and I had waited all semester... invested myself fully into a deep friendship with a handsome gentleman. A man who had rearranged the landscapes of my internal future. He taught me to walk in confidence. He looked into my eyes and respected me for who I was... he was a great conversationalist... He loved other cultures and I was convinced we would go places ... together. I knew him. I was ok with his idiosyncracies and I knew it might be  a long journey, but I was ready to go the distance. For the first time in my life I was in love-- and certifiably insane. My entire world revolved around him. And it was time to verify that we were on the same page. I went to meet him and we walked and talked for a while. Finally, I worked up the nerve and told him... my feelings were stronger than friendship.  He looked at me with all the compassion he could muster and he said the words I had known all along but my heart had not allowed me to process...

"I'm just not there right now." He then preceeded to remind me that he did not plan to seriously date anyone, let alone marry until he was 27. He apologized for leading me on in any way. We talked for another five minutes, agreeing that we would still be friends... Then I excused myself, went back to my dorm and cried for the rest of the semester. I wrote him letters but never sent them. I mourned the loss... And yet, somewhere I held out hope... after all he had said "...not there...right now." I clung to them in false hope.

Needless to say, our friendship slowly and painfully unravelled into the abyss of unrequited love and after about a year of prolonged hope...I closed the door of my heart... never again would I be so stupid to love someone who doesn't love me back... I realized that I didn't even know myself anymore. I had allowed giddy passion to slowly wrap all of my identity, all of my hopes and dreams...around the existence of another. Never again.

"This is not 'Goodbye,' but it is."
After that, somewhere in my heart, I convinced myself that I was only good enough to offer friendship. I was not attractive enough. I was not talented enough. I was not thin enough. I was not, I was not, I was not. ..enough. Love was not in my future. I learned to be a good, safe friend. I learned to listen. I learned to enjoy what a man offered. I learned to offer my best and not to expect anything in return.

I soon found a friend that had been there all along. I can't say I was incapable of having romantic feelings for him. But I knew... he felt sorry for me...he appreciated me for who I was, but I was not enough to fulfiill that desire in his heart... he did not see me as a woman, but as a neutral gendered friend. I was someone who could help him grow and heal and process. I was someone who would pray for him. I would be on the other end of the phone. I would be his Sunday night dinner buddy. I would be there to encourage him and offer him wisdom when he needed it. But, that was all. That was our unspoken arrangement...and I guess it worked. Until, the first time someone asked me how long we had been married. Yes, they did. Of course, I could not tell him... he would run away...he would spook like a wild stallion and be gone... and my comfortable friendship would be gone. That was the beginning of the end... the beginning of my defending our friendship as "just a friendship."

After years of this, I finally told him. Although we were just friends, it was getting very difficult to constantly defend our friendship. I was tired. I cared deeply for him and his life, but I didn't want to keep this up. I told him that people thought we were married... And the next day, years of friendship ended in an email that began with "This is not 'goodbye,' but it is..." I did not want anything more than friendship... but I cannot tell you how painful it was to lose our friendship. I had anticipated change. And, at some level, it was a relief. But I had not anticipated the sudden jolt of loss when we were suddenly no longer friends. His friendship was different than most... and when it ended, I began to expect one thing from men... rejection.

"I do not trust you."
Years passed and I became a strong, independent woman. I had dreams, goals, purpose...a calling. I did not need a man in my life... Of course, I dreamed about marriage and children like the next woman. But, I never seriously engaged men...I hid.

Enter my third life-changing male friendship. This time was different. I was not looking, God brought him to me. It was an unexpected encounter that seemed to organically unfold into a God-friendship. This friend valued me and respected me. He protected me and loved me. God blessed us through one another's lives.  We enjoyed a give and take friendship. We saw God do some awesome things through our obedience to Him... And somewhere along the way, I began to care more for him than I wanted...more than I wanted to admit.

I truly believe this friendship was meant to only be a friendship, but it was still hard when I introduced him to his wife... :-/ Yes, I did. AND I am very glad with the outcome today!  I could not have made a better match for him...God has blessed him with a beautiful life-mate who complements and enriches his life in SO many ways... AND the difference this time... I am better friends with both of them than ever before... God reconciled that friendship... I had a choice to make to overcome my pain and to be a friend...

However, my intial reaction was not so good. I felt completely rejected...again. I withdrew SO fast... I needed to. I had let my heart hope again in a strange way... I needed to regroup. For a long time, I hurt... This time, I found myself angry with God and angry with myself -- for not guarding my heart!

It was not until recently that I realized that my friend had never rejected me. I, in fact, had rejected him. I had held him at bay...and even told him that I did not trust him. Whether or not, that had anything to do with anything is a moot point... the point is that God used it to do something deep in my life.
Above All Things Guard Your Heart for it is the Wellspring of life." Proverbs 4:23

Over the next year, God began to unravel my pain. He began to answer my questions. I kept asking Him why I was never good enough...for anyone!! I felt like He had led me into a trap... yes, I did... I just accused God of playing games with my heart. I asked God questions like, "Who am I?" and "Why in the world do I exist?" and "Please, tell me why you bothered to create me?!" I was someone who should know better by now...but NOTHING made sense... nothing!

I felt a two-fold response... God kept reminding me that beauty is vulnerable. At the same time, EVERYWHERE I went I would run into Proverbs 4:23.  This caused deep-seated anger in me... I hated the concept of guarding my heart!! God, how does this work? How do I be vulnerable and still guard my heart??!!

Then, He began to respond...
One day, He asked me what the word heart meant ... to me and in that passage. My first thought was Valentine's day... and mushy stuff. Then, it went to physical body... you know the vital, central organ. Finally, I looked it up. The transliterated Hebrew word is lev which is two word pictures put together. The first word picture is a shepherd's staff, which means "authority." The second word picture is the inner layout or blueprint of a nomadic tent, which means "that which resides within." When put together, the word lev is roughly translated, "the authority that resides within." (DISCLAIMER: I am not a Hebrew scholar, but this is the consensus of others' findings).

What is this "authority that resides within"?
So, at the end of that little study, I had this phrase... " the authority that resides within." It kept rolling around in my head and I was like...what does it mean? I felt the Lord say to me...your heart is your identity. Cool... so God, who am I

He began to speak to me about my unique identity. He, the One who had created me...
First of all, my identity begins and ends in Christ.
Jesus made a way for me to be free from my sinful nature, to BE completely His and to BE fully myself.

One day, I felt God ask me what my name was...
I was like... really?
Yes, just go with it...
Ok, my name is Rachel Michelle Leonard.
Yes. But who are you?
Ok... I just told you...
Rachel, you ARE your name...

Oh! That's great...what?! Then it began to sink in... Ever since I was a kid, I was that "uncool" kid... the oldest of three...always mothering and nurturing... the one that was teased with statements like, "Ok, Mom." I hated it!! But that day, something dawned on me...
Rachel means "Mother Lamb". 
Michelle means "Who is like God?"...it is a question and a proclamation of worship and authority. Leonard means "Lion-hearted"... I love with a fierceness...
I am created to nurture souls, to worship God and to fiercely defend and protect His people through prayer. This moment was defining for me! I suddenly felt like my clothes fit!!

I realized that I had spent my life wrapping my identity around the expectations of others...allowing others to dictate who I was.

So, how/why do I guard my heart?
Well, for a few weeks, I just had this freedom I'd never known before... but I still didn't know how/why I guard it... The why came pretty obviously... we only guard those things that we value...we don't pay someone to guard our dumpster... We guard our heart/identity because we value it.

But the deeper question in my soul was ... how do I keep this from happening again?

Then one night I had a dream. In the dream, I saw this beautiful painting... I don't even remember what it looked like... but it was magnificent. All kinds of people were standing around admiring it. But the painting was roped off and had a sign in from of it that said, "Please do NOT touch."

I began to ponder the sign. Why do you not touch an oil painting? Because the oil from your skin...and everyone else's skin...slowly deteriorates the initial work and changes the entire look of the original painting. I felt impressed that, just like the painting, I could live with my life on display for all to see...but that I was not to let others touch and change His design...

This season was transformational in my life!! I suddenly felt a sense of purpose that I had never experienced. I was free to be myself and to serve the Lord... as me :-)


Failing Forward 2012: Embracing Myself Part 2

2012: A Year of Embracing Myself...Failure & All

It's been almost two months and a couple of holidays since everything hit the fan. I spent five days at home for Christmas, but I've been spending a lot of time just sorting through my last 27 years. I'm coming to some conclusions...
  • I am a right-brained person trying to be left-brained. I have spent all of my life striving to be left-brained. I've always felt that in order to be successful, I have live in another hemisphere of my brain. It's been like trying to wear someone else's clothing.
  • I am tired of working so hard to be someone else. It is exhausting to sit through long theological debates with people and want to simply say... "Who cares?" or "Yeah, but how?" But, since I'm a minister...I just shut up and grin & bear it because "that's what we do."
  • I am a deep thinker, I just think differently about things. I am a woman but I do have a brain. I think about how someone's actions effect others. I think about how words fit nicely together. I think about how the Holy Spirit works in the world. I think about how to resolve conflicts. I think about seasonings and colors and how they complement each other. I think about characters in books like they are people. I think about why Jesus uses metaphors to explain His Kingdom instead of theological theories.
  • Everyone else can see the real me better than I can. My closest friends laugh when I admit these thingst to them and say, "Rae-Rae, I could have told you this all along." (By the way, you have to earn the right to use that name ;-)
  • I want to discover what it's like to fulfill God's calling as myself... I want to figure out how a creative person fits into the ministry world. I want to make my voice heard and believe that others will listen to me...when I am being myself.
So, with these thoughts in mind... My only resolution for this year is to learn to be ok with being me... to know God fully as He is...to explore life as a creative person being led by the Holy Spirit... Here are some intentional lifestyle changes for this year...
  • I want to learn to garden. I want to study the process of development from seed to fruit. I want to be ok with investing time into cultivating life.
  • I want to get a cuddle buddy... a dog.
  • I want to spend more time with children... They are so full of innocence and curiosity.
  • I want to write... dare I say it? A novel. I need courage to do this.
  • I want to spend more time being in nature than on Facebook.
  • I want to invest in reciprocal relationships... ones that intimidate me, yet challenge me...relationships that empower me to BE, not just do.
  • I want to explore creativity and spirituality... what my calling in life looks like in light of my findings.
  • I want to spend more time investing in God's Kingdom, than in creating the illusion of my own.
  • I want to walk in humility...being content to abide in God's Presence even when no one is looking
  • I want to spend this year enjoying each day as it comes.. without anxious thoughts...aware of God's Voice and Presence.
  • I want to fall in love with this little town... the people, the traditions and the foreigners who dwell here...the plans God has for its people...I want to make Springfield home.

This year, I want to meditate on these truths...to learn to live them in fullness...
  • Philippians 4:11 Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. 13 For I can do everything through Christ,[c] who gives me strength.
  • Romans 8: 15 So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children.[h] Now we call him, “Abba, Father.”[i] 16 For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. 17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.
  • Ephesians 4: 1 Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God. 2 Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. 3 Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.
  • 1 John 4:11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us. 13 And God has given us his Spirit as proof that we live in him and he in us. 14 Furthermore, we have seen with our own eyes and now testify that the Father sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15 All who confess that Jesus is the Son of God have God living in them, and they live in God. 16 We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. 17 And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. 18 Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. 19 We love each other[b] because he loved us first.

If you you have endured to the end of this blogpost... you are amazing!! I ask you to pray with me to come to a deeper understand of what this means and to challenge me when I start to run back... Thank you in advance. Happy Growing!

Failing Forward 2012: Embracing Myself Part 1

Complicated Me
I've always really loved people... hearing their stories, being present to their journey, watching them become more of themselves... growing closer to Jesus with them. It's one of those strange things I cannot totally explain. I can honestly say I've never met anyone I haven't loved. Really. I'm not saying people have never gotten under my skin. I'm just saying there is an innate desire in me to love people. I see them as they are and as who they are becoming.  Watching life unfold for people is so thrilling.

On the other hand, if I am not spending adequate time alone, I get overwhelmed with compassion and empathy really quickly. I recharge by myself. Me, my journal, my Bible and (most recently) a cup of coffee. Sometimes, I like to be outside and just BE... to sit and soak up the world around me... Or Ill pick up a good book and get lost in it for a while (the funny thing is that I tend to make friends with the characters and it's hard to let go of them at the end of the book). My dearest friends and family know that I am a verbal processor ... so after my alone time, I usually begin to crave quality conversation with like-minded people. I always love/hate these moments. I love them because I feel known and I am able to re-connect with reality through processing everything I'm experiencing. But I hate them because I often feel guilty and like I've overwhelmed the person who is listening. I am a deep thinker and sometimes, even the people who know and love me best just look at me with these looks of "Huh? You lost me ten minutes ago."

Meanwhile, I enjoy being creative. Writing has always been something I just do. People tell me I'm good at it...urging me to do it more, to write books and blogs. I've often had the desire to do it for a living...but never felt good enough. I love to cook and create new ways to make food. I've pushed that away with the excuse that there is no one to cook for... I enjoy singing and being a part of musical experiences... but my sister is the real singer...I've dabbled in painting but...my brother is the artist... I enjoy knitting and making things... but I am not a crafty person... I like making things for people...

The Journey that led me to here...
All of my life, I've been an all or nothing person. I've had very high expectations for myself and I have pushed really hard. Yet, I have often been frustrated. You see, when I was ten years old, I heard Jesus speak something very simple and personal into my heart. He asked me to feed and lead His sheep. I said yes. And for the past seventeen years, I have been trying very hard to figure out how that works out practically. When I heard the Lord speak to me so long ago, I knew that I was called to pastor... Over the years, I have worn the children's pastor hat, the youth pastor hat, the women's minister hat, the missionary hat... all of which were great in season. But, I just could never seem to feel quite ... "at home." I studied ministry in college. I obtained ministerial credentials. I served in all the areas for which I felt passionate, paid or unpaid, I tried to be noticed... I waited for doors to open, for direction, for favor... for a sense of arrival...a sense of approval. But, it never happenened. I always ended up working as a secretary to "support my ministry habit" (working full-time and doing ministry in all of my spare time) and feeling deeply frustrated...eventually burning out.
My mom always says..."You are a natural teacher. Be a teacher... Women never get paid to be in the ministry..." But the thought of spending thirty years in a public school setting feels like a life sentence to the penitentry. I know there is something to what she is saying. I am a teacher... I teach all the time. But, I don't want to teach reading, writing and arithmetic.

When I gradutated college, I had a dream. I was going to go to cemetary...ehem, I mean, seminary, someday. In fact, I almost went straight out of undergrad (probably should have) but I decided to go home to Kentucky... well, actually God led me there, I never would have gone back of my own volition. I told myself I just needed some ministry experience and I would go in a couple years. I even attempted a few times to go to seminary at home. I was accepted and signed up for classes twice, but didn't follow through for one reason or another.

In Kentucky, I began to see my generation...full of potential, a fresh, creative soul with wounds so deep... and a passion for everything real... a generation longing to be connected to the Creator of creativity and the Father to the fatherless... My heart began to cry out for my generation and look for ways to pastor the heart of this generation...

Well, last February, almost six years later, burnt out for the third time in five years, I decided it was time. I was accepted to my dream seminary... Fuller Theological Seminary... I was moving to California...as far away from Kentucky and all of my perceived failures as I could possibly go. I was finally pursuing my M.Div... finally someone would take me seriously! I was so excited about the possiblities of being immersed in studies on the sunny West Coast, surrounded by diversity...

But then, God stepped in. He reminded me about the school I oringally planned to attend. It was in no place exciting...land-locked, extremely humid & hot in summer and icy cold in winter... the people white, inbred and with A/G on their underwear... (please do not be offended... this was my perspective). At first, I had no interest, but then I knew...this where I need to be. I began to get excited. I visited this smaller midwest college town, had two interviews and two weeks later...I moved here in the dead heat of summer.

Um, yes, I did. I started working full time and it barely paid the bills. I was a secretary again. I was miserable. But, hey, at least I had insurance ... and most of my co-workers were Christians. And, they said they would work with my school schedule.

Over the summer, I became involved in a community of Christians...young adults specifically. It is everything I had been praying for God to develop back in Kentucky...but is was here, in the center of the A/G universe and I was completely shocked. Did I fail to mention I tend to see people and everything else through the lens of prophetic potential? I see them as they are becoming...and so it makes loving them as they are so much easier... I fell head over heels for what God is doing here... and it soon became all I could think about and pray for...

Enter my first semester of seminary. I am pretty stupid and idealistic sometimes. Who thinks they can go to seminary... work forty hours a week...study Greek in a distance course... be SUPER involved in a church community/ministry...have a social life...hang out with international students...lead a small group... and sleep?? This girl right here...silly old me!! EPIC FAIL.

Long story a little shorter than it actually is. I chose to engage this community first. I was working and trying to study and enraptured with deep thoughts of what God is doing here... I began to get sick. Something that is a classic sign that I've overdone it... BIG PROBLEM when you have a probationary period for work. Over six months of work I missed 2.5 days due to sickness... and I lost my job ... never had that happen before...ever... let's talk about humble pie.

To make things more complicated, this semester made me really begin to question my motives for going to seminary. I did not enjoy one moment... well, except for the class on Gender & Culture...but I was frustrated about not being able to engage it enough. Most of the time, I felt completely frustrated with the entire process... and disconnected from seminary life... and felt like I was an orange in a basket of apples. When the spring semester class list came out, all of the course times conflicted with my work schedule. I decided that I would take a semester off and pray about my seminary investment. Registration ended on a Friday, I lost my job on the following Monday.

So, suddenly I find myself in a town I tolerate with nothing to show for the past six months but a great group of friends and an epic failure in the rest of life. That brings us up-to-date...