Hope from Ashes Part I

I squirmed in my seat as the pastor continued his sermon on honoring fathers. We had just finished singing praises about our good Father in heaven and His love for us. At age eleven, I was recently old enough to be past the limit for children’s church, but far from an adult. I sat next to my weary mom, her mascara slightly smeared from tears that were quickly pushed aside so as not to draw attention. My two sisters and brother were at my dad’s apartment for the weekend. I had woken up early in his one-bedroom, garden level place to the four of us kids sprawled around the living room on old flannel sleeping bags, once used for summer camping trips, but now cocooning the remnants of a broken family. The walls were lined with thousands of records and CDs, posters of The Beatles and Rolling Stones. The scent of beer was ever lingering in the air. I would take any opportunity to get out of that apartment on our weekends with him, even if it meant going to church. 

I felt hot anger stir near my heart and up to my throat as the pastor went on about the importance of dads and their role in the family. My eyes burned with tears I wished would cease. It felt better to be angry than to be empty. God calling Himself a Father? No, thank you. Fathers only ever disappointed me. There was no selfless love, only love for self. There was no shield of protection, only betrayed trust. God promised peace, comfort, purpose, healing…and although I had trusted Jesus as my eternal Savior years ago at a sunny five-day club, I wasn’t sure I could trust a fatherly God with my here and now life. 

Suddenly thrust into single parenting, my mom found a job with a good company. It was an hour away in another city. Shortly after my parent’s divorce, the four of us hit teenage years in domino effect. We were on the bus before the sun rose, home to an empty house in the afternoon, fending for ourselves until our mom pulled into the driveway late in the evening, tired from work, tired from life, hoping we had managed to put together some semblance of dinner.  

Heartache became a consistent pain, a quiet hum always pulsing between desperation and rage beneath the surface. If I could just internalize that hurt, not let it out for everyone to see, then I could control it, I thought. As long as no one else knew I felt unloved, unseen, never enough, forgotten, I would manage to come out on the other side of this complete, somehow. 

One afternoon, early in the years after the divorce, I was at another parentless home when my friend and I tried boxed wine we had found in the refrigerator. It was fruity and bitter and pink. We giggled and played Mario Kart and for the first time in months I felt light. I felt free. I felt silly and wonderful and like maybe that heavy rain cloud that had been hovering over my life had lifted for a while. 

Sure to maintain a balanced external image, never wanting the world to know how broken I was, I continued to lead in youth group. I was a star student, I had my chores done, maintained an afterschool job, and thought all aspects of my life could keep spinning, if I was just good enough. Inside, my heart was dark and full of hate. Hatred toward my dad for leaving, self-loathing at my own two-faced lifestyle, bitterness toward God for allowing things to be this way, pain from my mom for the way she disappeared into work and a new boyfriend. But, with that quick buzz from drinking, I could float away and become someone else. Someone people thought was fun and hilarious. Someone who was carefree, likeable, silly. The bubbly, happy girl I wished I was. I would escape into that world as often as I could – anything to get away from the reality of my life. 

One Sunday at church, the lyrics on the screen said something about giving God my whole life for His glory. My mouth couldn’t form the words. I was a fraud. I was living this phony image of a good church girl when really I was a broken, self-medicating mess. In that moment, I prayed that God would change me, save me from myself, help me look deep into my heart at old wounds that had festered and spread. 

He is so kind. He is always so ready with open arms. He knew. He didn’t need my confession; I did. I needed to acknowledge that doing this my own way wasn’t working. That I was only creating more pain, not alleviating any. I wish I could say from that moment on I only ever ran to Jesus, but the temptation to numb rather than feel was always there. I did, however, bring things to light with a trusted older friend. Numbing was no longer a shameful secret, even while it continued to be a struggle. When I was 16, my dad married his third wife, a practicing Wiccan. The same year, my mom married my step dad. A man who, from the outside, seemed like a perfect fit. 

My mom’s marriage resulted in my sister and brother moving in with my dad, leaving my youngest sister and me with mom. My step dad moved us from our familiar neighborhood to a big, open house thirty minutes from town with neighbors scattered miles apart. A barrage of verbal abuse became the norm in our home. He particularly targeted me. Many mornings I would walk up the stairs to be told how fat I looked. I wasn’t allowed to sit on certain couches. I wasn’t allowed to eat specific foods from the pantry. I could only enter the house through one door, while the rest of the family entered through the garage. If we went out to dinner as a family, I had to pay for my own meal. Every word I said or step I took felt like walking in a minefield; I never knew when the next bomb would go off. 

I watched my mom become a shell of her former joyful self. She wanted so badly for this marriage to succeed that she retreated into herself and would not confront what was happening. Many, many days, I would pull into the driveway and sit in my little blue car, praying for God to give me the strength to walk through the door. I prayed for Him to take me far away from there. Over the next three years, from ages sixteen to nineteen, I tried to move in with friends, go away to college, join a missions group, but door after door was closed. I couldn’t live with my alcoholic dad and witchcraft wife. I was trapped. 

One warm summer evening I was sitting on our porch, journaling. The sky was a hazy lavender as the sun set. I was writing a prayer. I asked God to help me see my step dad with fresh eyes, to have compassion on him. I prayed for purpose, that I might be content to stay where He had me for whatever reason that may be. As I journaled, my step dad pulled up in his big gray truck and checked the mail at the end of the drive. I watched him, and felt my heart soften. I felt God answer that prayer right then. In my journal, I drew a simple sketch of the adirondack chair I was sitting in so I would remember God’s presence, His nearness in that precise moment. 

That moment was the beginning of the last 48 hours of my step dad’s life. 

To be continued May 24, 2021

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About Jen Hulbert

Jen Hulbert lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with her husband and favorite coffee date, Aaron. They serve together at Calvary Bible Church, where Aaron is the lead pastor. She homeschools her three boys and loves sharing the beauty of God’s creation with them by hiking the trails of the northern Arizona forest. Jen met Jesus at a young age, and as she gets to know Him better, discovers more of who she was intended to be. Creating the perfect playlist, well-timed puns, and all forms of organizing and categorizing are a few of her favorite things.