Thursday, September 13, 2012

Week 13: Jeni Bateman

Pastor Adam Bateman's wife
Jeni Bateman
I've been reading “A Pilgrim’s Progress” with my kids. I home school, and the longer I do so, the more I realize just how many amazing stories I missed out on growing up. Stories captivate you…they have a way of drawing you into the lives of the characters. The Bible is like that...full of stories about imperfect people and their attempts to follow God.  These stories can be sad or hard, frustrating or even shocking….but always beautiful because God is always God, He always comes through even “If we are unfaithful, He remains faithful for he cannot deny who he is.” (2 Timothy 2:13) It's the same with us. Each of our lives tells a story.

My name is Jeni Bateman, and this is part of my story….

I was always a daddy’s girl. I adored my dad. When I was seven, I remember driving out to Longview with my Mom and sister. We met up with my dad and I jumped at the chance to ride with him to the restaurant. He had a truck, and I guess seat belt laws weren’t as strict back then because I remember laying in his lap studying his face as we drove. He had just gotten a haircut, and I was drinking in the differences it made in his appearance. When we got there, we were seated at a booth, and I sat next to him. During the meal, I saw my dad’s hand reach for a chip from the basket and then pause. He began to shake…violently. He banged his head against the big wooden post separating the booths. Then he fell to the floor, his body still shaking.
I’m not really sure how we got to the hospital because I don’t remember leaving the restaurant. I remember being in the waiting room. My grandma, aunt, and uncle were there too. I remember the doctor coming out and talking with my mom. My dad had suffered a major heart attack, and just like that, he was gone.

I’m not sure my seven year old brain was able to fully comprehend what happened. I don’t remember all the details that followed, but I do remember what all the well-meaning church people told me. They told me that it was okay because God needed my daddy in Heaven more than I needed him. Or they would tell me that God needed more angels in heaven. As I grew up and developed my own faith, I realized there was no truth in these statements. In the Psalms, David cries out, “What good am I to you dead; how can I praise you from the grave?” We don’t become angels when we die, and family was God’s design…with a mother AND a father. Little girls need their daddies...period.  I wanted to believe that God was good, but to me, losing my dad did not seem “good” or “okay”.

Most of my 20s I spent on a quest for truth. I spent some time in Bible College. I studied theology... original sin, Calvinism, and free will. I studied creationism and debated with evolutionists. It was fun and I enjoyed flexing my intellectual muscles. I’ve spent time in churches of different denominations and differing theologies.  I had a sense of pride in all I knew about God, the Bible and I was developing my own strong opinions on theology. However, when I started experiencing the hard things of life, all this knowledge left me empty.

About 15 years ago, my mom was diagnosed with early onset, atypical Parkinsons Disease. Nobody really has an instruction manual on how to live with a terminal illness. The doc passes the diagnosis and gives a brief description of what will most likely happen as the disease progresses. The patient goes home and reads all they can find on the details. Then they attempt to figure out how to make the most of life while they can still walk, drive, and go to the bathroom unassisted. This was apparently too much for my step dad to cope with because he ended up having an affair...with a church member.

But this wasn't just any church member. My step dad played drums in the worship band, and she sang in the choir. Her parents, who were elders, had been in a Life Group with my parents for over ten years.  We were all friends.  They were the ones I had gone to when I was having a faith crisis at 18. I remember sitting in their living room and crying as they walked me through the “sinner’s prayer.” They told me to remember that date so Satan could never steal that away from me. This time it was different. “Go home, Jeni.” They told me.  “Mind your own business. Go take care of your own little family.”

In the divorce my mom lost her husband, her life group, and her church. Not one person from that church was there to help my mom walk through the divorce or the progression of her disease. A few years later, this same church was in the news. They had taken pictures of cars parked in front of a nearby “adult toy store.” Then they used the public DMV records to access the addresses of each car owner so they could mail the incriminating photo to each address. People were outraged at the violation of privacy. I was dumfounded by the hypocrisy. Thus continued my search for what was real…

I was doing okay. God was speaking to me. The Bible was alive when I read it. I’d spend the kids' 2 hour nap time journaling, reading and praying. I was slowly healing. This went on for years. But life continued to happen. I couldn’t quite keep up with the hurts I was experiencing. I was overwhelmed and afraid to trust because a broken trust just hurts. I remember looking out the back door while I was supposed to be starting a load of laundry. My mind started playing tricks on me and I remember thinking that I could just leave...start walking and not look back…leave everything that pained my heart. But that would also be walking away from everything I held most dear in my life. I recognized the whisper of God in that moment, “These thoughts are an attack on the way I designed you. Do not listen to them.” I snapped out of it. I finished the laundry. My heart swelled with gratitude for the four beautiful, healthy children in the next room.

Over time, I began feeling like the Bible was not opening up to me. I kept journaling and reading, and going over things that had spoken to me so clearly in the past. It became frustrating honestly, so for a while, I gave up. I started reading C.S. Lewis, Andrew Murray, Brother Lawrence, Brennan Manning etc., but despite my searching, I felt God’s voice and presence fade. I kept reading and praying and crying out. At one point I was convinced that everything I did was sin and thought that was why I could no longer hear His voice. I called my husband, Adam, at work and cried. At first, he laughed at me and told me I was being ridiculous, but then he came home and just held me. He told me I had the night off to go spend time with Jesus and to come back when I was ready.

I drove around aimlessly. I cried. I tried processing what was going on in my head. I've always been a quiet person, but I felt the need to just yell at the dark, black sky in front of me. I wanted to know what sin was keeping me from hearing him. When I became still and quiet again, I heard so clearly my answer. “The world’s sin is unbelief in me.” I knew what He meant. My trust in church and people had been broken and it was affecting how I viewed God. I pulled into the nearest parking lot and took out my Bible and journal. I turned to a passage that had walked me through so much of the last few years.

   Joshua 1 “…I will not fail you or abandon you….Be strong and very courageous….Study this Book of instruction continually…Do not be afraid or discouraged for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Peace swept over me and my soul sighed in relief. I returned home. Adam took one look at my eyes and he knew.

Months later, I was still painfully aware of God’s silence.  The Bible had not yet reopened to me. My mom was in the hospital with her fourth back surgery. I had been driving back and forth between Tyler, where we lived, and Ft. Worth, where my mom was. She had contracted a staph infection and we thought we were to losing her. As a family we were beginning to talk about what would have to happen if we did. It was scary.

I had just finished reading The Great Divorce and The Problem of Pain, both by C. S. Lewis.  I came across a book by Dr. Wayne Dyer called, “Being in Balance.” It appealed to me because I felt so unbalanced. I devoured the book. My spirit recognized truths and my parched soul was drinking them in. I wondered why this guy, who was not a professed Christian, could have so much peace. I grew frustrated that no matter how hard I tried to press in to God...and at a time when I felt so desperately in need of Him...that I was left with very little peace in my soul. I stopped reading. I was too tired and too busy driving back in forth, trying to still educate my kids and maintain some level of sanity.

All of this was happening while Adam, my husband, was attending Youth With A Mission’s (YWAM) “School of the Bible.” While he was learning and growing in his faith, I grew more and more weary and exhausted. I told God one day, “I’m done. I’m tired of trying. I’m tired of believing. I’ll keep teaching my kids about you because I want them to have the chance to know you if you're real. But as for me, I’m just done. I’m too tired to believe any more.”  I kept this all to myself. I didn’t journal it. I didn’t tell Adam. I had grown up in church and this felt like blasphemy, but I was too empty to do anything else.

About a week later, a couple made a surprise visit to Adam's school. They were big believers in the prophetic, something Adam and I were leery of because we had seen it so misused and abused in the past. The school set aside a morning of class and allowed this couple to minister prophetically to each student. They prayed for Adam, and it was so encouraging and in line with what was going on in his life. Adam knew I was struggling and asked if they would pray for me too. I had never met these people but this was a part of their prayer for me:

   “He knows where you're at, your situation. There is hope. There is courage. What the enemy wants to do is steal your courage to follow God but the Lord says ‘be encouraged because I delight in you. I’m doing a good work in you and so trust Me. And know that I’m doing a good work in you because you are mine. You belong to me. You’re not a stranger or a step child, but you are Mine. You belong to me.’”

The entire prayer was written down and Adam brought it home to me. I cried. I still cry when I read it. It didn’t fix everything in that instant, but those words never drifted far from my heart.

My search for God...the real God, continued. I picked up a few books by Buddhist and Taoist monks. Their writings seemed to offer so much peace, and I recognized truths in them. I knew that was why they were such popular religions. After all, people, created by God, are not going to be attracted to an obvious lie. We were designed to be in a relationship with our Creator, that is cry of humanity’s soul…that connection, that relationship. We just miss it…a lot...even as Christians.

I knew I was connecting with God, as the lover and creator of my soul, but my quest for truth went on. I began doubting the very fundamentals of the faith…all the theology stuff that had left me empty, even things like the infallibility of the Bible and the deity of Jesus. Christians and the church had so often failed me, and I wanted to know why. I knew that God was real, and I believed that He was good. But I also knew that people messed things up. My thoughts grew dangerous… “So what if there were mistakes in the bible? Aren't the truths of God indisputable, even amongst historical discrepancies or what appear to be contradictions? What if Jesus was just a man, like Gandhi or Buddha? And what if Christians were his followers because his life was truly amazing and he seriously revolutionized the way we view God?”

I decided I would still call myself a Christian, despite the hurt and pain I’d experienced from the church because I liked who Jesus was. Even if he wasn’t truly the Son of God, I could follow his example as one of the best I’d ever seen on being in a relationship with God.  I kept this all to myself because I didn’t want to freak people out. The last thing I wanted was a theological lecture trying to prove something I felt like didn’t hold any real answers...or people fearing and praying for the salvation of my soul.  I didn’t want to mess up anyone else’s faith. I wasn’t out to start a new religion or anything. I just wanted Truth.

During this time, my mom was preparing for yet another surgery. Because of the previous staph infection, her spine healed crooked. She was extremely hunched over, and no level of medication could touch the pain. The surgery was extremely risky with her compromised health. We tried to make the most of the day, but as night came, my brother and sister and I were all too aware that this could be the last time we would ever kiss her goodnight. Part of me wanted to pray that this would give her a new lease on life and part of me wanted to beg God to just take her home already. We had tried so many things…we'd prayed for her healing, gone to healing conferences,  tried alternative therapies and natural “cures”. I'd read passages like this one:

 “He saw a woman who had been crippled by an evil spirit. She had been bent double for eighteen years and was unable to stand up straight.  When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Dear woman, you are healed of your sickness! Then he touched her, and instantly she could stand straight. How she praised God!” (Luke 13:11-13)

My questions about the deity of Jesus were amplified during this time and I was left wondering, “Why did she have to go through all of this? Wasn’t this enough suffering for one person.”  I knew that while Jesus walked this earth, he was known for encounters like the one in Luke.  I didn't understand and my heart just hurt.  I wanted to cry out to him but if Jesus wasn’t the Son of God, I wasn’t sure how to pray.

My mom survived the surgery.  She is no longer on pain meds except for the occasional Advil. That was over a year ago. However, her level of care has far exceeded what my sister can handle. It is no longer safe for my mom to be in her own home and we had to make the decision to move her to an accessible living facility. It makes me sad because I know this is not how she wanted to spend her years as a grandmother. She could hardly wait for my sister, brother, and I to get married and give her grandbabies. This is not what any of us planned on.

So where am I in my faith journey now? Well, not too long ago, I decided to read through the gospels with my kids. I was still trying to figure out this Jesus guy. When we got to the story of the Mount of Transfiguration and I read these words, ““This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” It was like I heard the audible voice of God myself. I knew, in that moment, who Jesus was. He was the Jesus I fell in love with in YWAM. He was the lover of my soul that could bring a smile to my face and cause my lips to spontaneously announce, “I love Jesus!”  to whoever happened to be standing around me. This journey of mine is far from over, I’m sure. I don’t have it all figured out, but I'm okay with that. Yes, there are things that have affected my trust in the church, but God has never once let go of my heart. I have come to Him and blamed Him, accused Him, questioned Him, cursed Him, beat His chest with my fists, and screamed in His face...all the while, tears streaming from a heart that has been broken. And when I was too tired to fight anymore, it was at His feet I fell. He’s still not saying much, but I feel him. I feel Him scoop me up and hold me close. I feel His breath on my face and His heart beating so close to mine...and I get it. Years ago, I asked for Him to cause my heart to beat with His and what I’ve found is that He knows. He knows the brokenness and the pain of this world....oh my God, how He knows. He took my blame, my anger, my questions, my frustrations, and my doubts because He can. He can take my broken heart. He can because He knows....He knows on a level I  could never understand because I would die under the weight of that knowing. But I feel like I’ve gotten a peak into the heart of God.

Something feels special about beginning to know God in this way. I have found my favorite place to be is still in the arms of my Abba and I am content to be still and wait for a while…to just know that He is lay my head in His lap and drink in the differences in His appearance now that much of the rules, misconceptions and religion have been cut away. This is the face I have been searching for.

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