My story starts, more or less, with the death of my sister. Chloe was my best friend. I remember looking up to her as my older sister, and how sweet she was to me. I was 3 and a half, the night she fell out of the top bunk. I heard a loud noise next to me, and saw her lying on the floor. The way she was laying there looked strange to me. I suddenly felt afraid, and as I ran to my parents room, my whole world seemed to be narrowing around me. I remember yelling over and over “something bad happened to Chloe!” Chloe spent the next week in the hospital in a coma. She had sustained internal bleeding to her head. When my parents came home from the hospital I asked my mom, “When is Chloe coming home? She said, “She’s not coming home – she’s gone to be with Jesus.” My response was, “He can’t have her.” I felt jealous of Jesus – that he would get to be with my sister, and I wouldn’t. My mom and I had a good long cry together. 4 days later, my sister Marianna was born. As I held her in my arms, I remember thinking, “I have to be the big sister now,” followed by the thought, “I can’t.”
I felt so overwhelmed. As a 3 and a half year old, I was trying to process that Chloe was gone, and that I had a new little sister. I knew God was real, and that He loved me. But I also was learning that bad things can and do happen. I knew Chloe was with Jesus. She had loved to talk about Him, and said she wanted to be with Him in heaven, just a few days before her fall. But although it wasn’t rational, I began to think that it was my fault she had died. And even though I believed God loved me, and was mostly good, I wasn’t sure if he was always good.
But God was there.
My Dad was a PCA Army Chaplain. When I was about 6 years old, we were stationed in Germany. One night, I had a dream. In the dream I saw a bright light with a voice, speaking to me. The Voice told me that Jesus was God, and that He was the only way to God. He told me that I was His, and no one would ever take me away from Him. He told me that He was my Shepherd, and I was His sheep. When I awoke from the dream, I rubbed my eyes because they were sore from the brightness in the dream. My heart leapt with a joy I’d never felt before, and I remember thinking “That really happened.” I know I didn’t yet understand the good news of what Jesus had come to do.
But God was there.
During our time in Germany we went to Switzerland in the summers. My parents had lived there at L’Abri with Francis & Edith Schaeffer, before I was born. I have wonderful memories of our summers in Switzerland with the L’Abri folks. Years later, my Dad told me those childhood trips were intentional on his part. He recognized that he had withdrawn from Marianna and me when Chloe died. Those trips we took as a family were a way he could create a sense of togetherness, as best he was able.
One of those vacations was to Greece, when I was 7 years old. While we were there, I kept teasing my younger sister, Marianna and being mean to her. Finally, I got to the point of exasperation, asking my mom, “Why do I hurt Marianna when I love her so much?” She explained to me that I was a sinner, but that Jesus had died so that I could be free from slavery to sin, and be forgiven. We prayed together in a restaurant on Santorini Island. When we stepped outside, my Dad and sister were waiting for us with ice cream cones, at a sunset that looked like the edge of the world set on fire. I felt the Holy Spirit, making my heart clean.
And God was there.
When I was about 13, I started to become depressed about my sister’s death. I don’t think I’d really been able to process it until then, because I was so young when it happened. I became fixated on the idea that I should have died instead of her. I felt the pain of missing her. I began to think about killing myself all the time, and the different ways I could do it. Then, for some reason (I can’t recall) I read the Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis. The book’s dialogue between one demon and another, on how to entrap humans, helped me to see that I needed to fight against those thoughts, with prayer. It was difficult and exhausting to take every hopeless thought captive to the Lord. But after several months, I came out of the darkness.
And God was there.
During my teen years, we lived in New York, and I was pretty evangelistic and outspoken as a Christian. Although I had been homeschooled from 3rd through 7th grade, I began attending public school in the 8th grade, because there were no homeschoolers my age in the area, and I was hungry for social interaction. I kept abortion pamphlets in my locker, just in case I had a conversation with someone on the topic. I did have a talk with one classmate who was considering an abortion, and was able to convince her to keep the baby. Later, in 10th grade, I was so outspoken in my science class that I challenged my teacher about the theory of evolution in front of the entire class.
During that time I also made friends with a girl in my gym class, who confided in me that she was suicidal, because she was constantly seeing spirits. I told her that she needed to put her trust in Jesus. She asked me whether the apparitions would go away if she trusted in Him, and I told her that I honestly didn’t know – but I did know she would be protected from them. Eventually, she professed faith in Christ – and the spirits did go away. During those years I was so zealous for the Lord. I felt like He was “lucky” to have me on His team.
But God was there.
When I was 17 I got into a relationship with a guy who I thought I loved, and wanted to marry. He wasn’t a Christian when we started dating, but had supposedly accepted Christ on one occasion, when we prayed together. We were physically involved, and he kept pushing me to go further. He finally pushed me to the brink, and I was about to lose everything to him, when I suddenly had a strong sense of Jesus with me, and his sadness at what I was doing. By God’s grace, I was able to stop from going further. Soon after that, I broke things off. That experience was a wake up call to me, spiritually. I was devastated to realize how weak I was; how ready to compromise, sin, and betray God. I repented and made a new commitment to follow Him. I couldn’t see at the time that it was He who was committed to me, and that no level of commitment I could give Him would ever be enough.
But God was there.
When I was 18, I attended a Precept Ministries summer Bible Study Camp in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I met some guys who wanted to start a band together. After prayer, and with my parent’s blessing, I left Monterey, California where we were stationed, to move to Tennessee, to be in the band. My mom made the drive out with me, in the family van, which my folks had gifted to me.
The morning we left, we had gotten as far as Bakersfield, when a white truck sped up beside us on the freeway. We ignored him at first, although he seemed to want our attention. Finally, he yelled “flat tire.” We pulled over to the side of the road, as he pulled over in front of us. He was an older man, looking to be in his mid-80’s. Immediately he started to work on changing the huge rear right tire of my 2-tank van, loaded to the max. While we talked to him and watched, I remember thinking, “he seems unreasonably strong and fast for someone so old.” When he’d finished, my mom and I were standing at the back of the van putting things away, and I told her, “I’m going to go thank him.” When I walked around to the front of the van – he was gone. The freeway stretched on for miles in a straight line, with no exits. There had been no sound of his car restarting – nothing. And it had only been a few seconds since we had seen him. My mom walked around to the front of the van, and said, “he’s gone.” We both got back in the van without another word, then prayed a prayer of thanks to God for His protection. In that moment, I felt God encouraging me that I wasn’t leaving Him in California – He was going with me.
And God was there.
When we got to Chattanooga, I didn’t have more than a couple hundred bucks, and basically had no plan. I just had peace that God wanted me to move to Tennessee, whether the band succeeded or not. Within a few weeks, The Johnson’s, who lived at Precept Ministries, took me in. I had met them during the summer Bible camp, but I’d never met anyone like them before. People said Karen was a “prophetess,” and she seemed to know things about me no one else did. I lived with her and her husband for about 3 months, until I could get a job and save enough money to have a place of my own. During that time, I encountered a lot of charismatic things I hadn’t seen before. On one occasion, when Karen took me to a small country church revival, I experienced what is known as getting “baptized in the holy spirit.” I trusted the Johnson’s, and so I accepted a lot of their ideas about Christianity at face value. Although my parents challenged my experiences in our phone conversations, I felt those things must be of God, because they felt good.
But God was there.
During the time I lived in Chattanooga from about 1996-1999, I lived in a small loft apartment by myself. Once, when I was praying for my future husband, I felt the Lord impress it upon me that he wasn’t a Christian, and I needed to pray for his salvation. The thought that my husband might not have grown up in a Christian home had never occurred to me. So I started praying. Years later, when I met Ted, I learned that the time when I was praying for him was the time of his salvation.
And God was there.
While I lived in Tennessee, I worked in retail, selling shoes, first at the mall, then as an assistant manager of a Birkenstock store. The band had only lasted about 6 months before we went our separate ways, but that acted as the catalyst for me to write and perform my own songs. On my nights and weekends, I performed anywhere I could – from coffee shops and bars, to festivals, radio stations, TV shows, church retreats – you name it. I loved that period of my life – writing and growing as an artist. And I loved living alone, getting to spend so much special time with the Lord. But after 3 years, I hit a wall artistically, and my musical mentor, James Ward, suggested that I go back to school to study jazz. I prayed that if it was God’s will for me, he would provide a summer music ministry opportunity, to help me transition from full-time work to school. Soon after that, on one of my gigs, I met a vocalist who told me about a Methodist music-ministry in Panama City Beach Florida, called Noah’s Ark. I contacted the Ark, and got the job working there for the summer. The Ark was literally a huge boat-shaped building, right across from the beach. I was there for about 2 months, performing 2 shows a night, 6 days a week. That’s where I met Shirley, another musician in the Ark’s ministry band.
Shirley and I quickly became inseparable. We lived together in a girls dorm in the Ark, and were basically together every waking moment. We became very affectionate, in ways I had never experienced with a girl before. It felt strange and different, but I didn’t admit to myself that what was going on might be inappropriate. As our friendship progressed, she made her feelings for me more clear. But we never talked about the fact that something different was going on between us.
After my summer at the Ark, I applied to several jazz schools, and got into the jazz program at USC in L.A. I didn’t know USC was an expensive private school when I applied, so when I realized that was the case, I was upset that I’d spent so much money applying, because I assumed it wasn’t a possibility for me. But Tierney Sutton, the head of the Vocal Jazz department convinced me that USC was where I should be; and God provided – in financial aid, and in my grandmother’s last minute offer to pay my rent, so long as I was in school. In my freshman year, Shirley came to visit. I loved being with her, yet I felt a dark, evil presence closing in all around me. After she left town, I prayed to God to help me to walk away from the relationship.
And God was there.
I dated a few guys here and there, but never for long. I always returned to a place of loneliness in the end; and my sense of isolation was growing. By then I was leading worship at a large, emergent church in L.A., called Mosaic. During my Junior year of school, I was away for a weekend leading worship at a women’s conference for the church, when I met a girl, who also played in the retreat band. We quickly became friends, but unlike Shirley, Lila was aggressive, and immediately open about her feelings for me. I was at a low point emotionally. I felt alone, and I was beginning to wonder if God really did have a man for me. I was starting to think that it might be better to be loved by anyone, than to not be loved at all. I felt like men had let me down, and caused me pain. I felt desperate. Although we were secretive, we were together. And although I felt a strong sense that what I was doing was wrong, my need to feel loved was being met. One night when we were together, I suddenly saw a picture of myself in a dark red valley, and sensed God there with me. I then saw myself turn my back on Him, and begin to walk away. That broke me. Being confronted with the reality of what I was doing woke me up, and enabled me to make the choice to follow – to keep following the Lord. I told Lila that what we were doing was wrong, and that we needed accountability. She agreed to seek help, and we each chose a woman at our church, to confide our situation to, and ask for accountability and prayer.
And God was there.
That winter when I came to Sacramento for Christmas, I told my mom about my relationship. She listened quietly as I fumbled through my words. When I’d finished talking, I waited, assuming the worst – that she’d be angry and condemn me, or tell me how horribly I’d failed. But that’s not what she did. I will never forget what she said. “It’s ok, Thena. God forgives you.” She didn’t make a big deal about it. She knew I needed grace. God showed me, through her response, that I really was forgiven, and that my sin didn’t define me, if I trusted in Him.
And God was there.
In the meantime, I performed regularly with my own band in L.A., working to build my music career. I won a national singer-songwriter competition and got to meet the CEO of a major label, but nothing came of it. Then there was a small Christian label and a major label in Nashville that were interested in signing me – but again, nothing. I worked with Tupac Shakur’s former manager, trying to get music deals – but every opportunity fell flat. My senior year, I auditioned for an MTV show that featured singer-songwriters in L.A., including Sara Bareillas. After 9 months of call-backs, I made it to the final cast of artists. When it came down to the wire, the show never got off the ground, but through that process I met my manager, Sally.
For the next four years we worked together to get a record deal and an album produced. We worked with various Grammy-award winning producers, but in the end, every door shut. During that time, for about a year, I had some wealthy real estate guys investing in me, basically paying me to just “be” an artist and write songs, with the goal of signing a major deal. I met with the representation for major artists, and major label heads. And while the powerful people of the music industry expressed interest in me, it was contingent on my willingness to be molded and sexualized. I could see that what the industry was about was in opposition to my Christianity. But I believed I could somehow exist in that world, without compromising my faith. I thought I could be the one to break the mold. So I kept on trying.
But God was there.
Towards the end of my senior year, God began to encourage me that I was ready to know what love was. I still struggled with feelings of resentment toward men, but God graciously helped me to see that if I cut men out of my life, I would miss his plan for me.
The summer after I graduated – I met Ted. He was unlike anyone I’d ever met. With him, I could be myself completely. No trying; no awkwardness – and no shame. I felt God’s peace. Within a few months we were engaged, and within 6 months, we were married. I struggled with fears about making such a huge life decision, after all the tumult of my past relationships. But somehow, God assured me that Ted really was who he seemed to be. It was a time of wonderful excitement, joy, and change.
We got married on May 1st, 2004. I didn’t remember it, but my mom reminded me that it was on May 1st, 1985 that I’d placed my trust in Christ, 19 years before, on Santorini Island.
And God had been there – all along.
In our first year of marriage, we wanted to find a church closer to where we lived in L.A. We found a very small, pseudo-emergent, non-denominational charismatic church in our area. We immediately connected with people there, as most of them were young artists and married-couples, like ourselves. The main pastor was a very controlling person, who made it clear that if you didn’t agree with him, you should leave. And many people did. No matter now many folks came or went over the years, the church stayed at about 40 people. We couldn’t see it at the time, but the church was stunted, because it was based on man’s word – not God’s.
In the meantime, after four years of working with my manager, God made it clear that I needed to move on. Around that time, my old mentor from USC, Tierney Sutton, contacted me to see if I would be willing to teach at the Los Angeles College of Music, where she was taking over as the vocal department Head. For the next four years, I taught vocal rock and pop, private lessons, and founded the songwriting department at the college. I absolutely loved teaching, and it was good to get the focus off myself, and become invested in the artistic growth of others.
After 7 years in our small church, Ted and I felt spiritually lost. The pastor had told me that I was the most prophetic person in the church, and that I should relay all the supernatural messages I was receiving, to him. Suddenly, I felt pressure to “hear from God.” In my attempts to come up with spiritual insight, I practiced centering, or contemplative prayer, and my quiet times began to devolve into sessions of emptying myself, and repeating mantra-like phrases. A girl at church taught me how to spin a pendulum to answer questions, similar to how you’d ask a ouija board. Not surprisingly, I got answers. Because it was coming from a fellow Christian, I didn’t understand it was an occult practice. But after spinning just once, I knew I was doing something wrong; so I stopped. I began to have the horrible experience of waking in the night with something invisible pinning me to the bed, choking me. I was experiencing so much darkness around me, and a dark presence was always there.
But God was there.
By this point, Ted and I were so confused spiritually, that we became desperate for answers, and began to cry out in prayer to God for help. We started to read our Bibles in search for what were essentially doctrinal questions we needed answers to; and God did answer us, in His Word. After about a year of reading scripture and working through our beliefs, we realized that our church was Biblically-off. The pastor made it clear that because we were in disagreement, we should go. When we left, the friendships we had built over an 8 year period were basically severed overnight. The loss was difficult and painful.
It was hard to come to terms with the fact that we basically had no community in L.A. Our son was about 2 years old, and raising a child in L.A. without any support was a challenge. We started to pray about moving, and the possibility of living closer to family. By then, I had become open to the possibility of moving away from the music industry. The more my mind had been transformed by Christ, the less appealing it was to me. Teaching had become a challenge too, because so many of my students wanted to know the secret to “making it big.” Now I didn’t even believe that was a goal worth pursuing. Yet, I still loved teaching, and the thought of leaving my job was difficult. After a lot of prayer, Ted and I decided that he should start looking for a job in Sacramento. Within a week of looking, Ted found the job he still holds today, 5 years later. We both handed in our notice, and 2 weeks later, we moved to Sacramento.
And God was there.
Since moving here, Ted and I have continued to work through our theology. God has been faithful to reveal His truth to us in His Word. The gospel has become so much clearer. So much of my past was based on the fear of punishment – that God’s love and affection for me depends on how well I feel I am doing. In the past when I had a bad day, I felt like God was disappointed in me, because I’d let Him down. And on those days when I was on a spiritual high, I was sure that God was especially pleased with me. But now I know the freedom that comes from being loved unconditionally. Because I know that nothing I do can add a single ounce to my justification or worthiness before God. Romans 1:16-17 was the verse that busted everything wide open for me, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”
I’ve realized that my relationship with God isn’t about being righteous enough. I know I’m not righteous. And that no matter how hard I try to be good, I fail every day, and I’ll keep failing, until the day I die. My life is a testimony of that. But I also know that when God looks at me, He doesn’t see my sins – past, present or future. He sees His righteousness – the righteousness of Christ, covering me like a robe. Is there anything more amazing than that? Is there anything more sweet, or comforting than to know that when I lose my temper with the kids, his grace it right there? That I don’t have to punish myself until I feel I’ve paid the penalty enough – I can just confess my sin, receive forgiveness and move on? Because there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” I didn’t used to understand that verse. But now I know that because my standing with God isn’t based on my ability to keep the law, but on Jesus’ perfect fulfillment of it, I’m free. He already loves me, so I don’t have to prove my love to Him. Like a little child, I just have to trust Him, because I know Him – and I know that He is good, and that He has always been there, protecting me when I’ve begun to stray.
When my sister died, I was angry at God. 10 years ago, I went back to Union, Missouri, where her ashes were scattered, praying that God would give me peace and closure. When I got there, I was overcome with sadness, because I realized there was no gravestone – nothing tangible to mark that she had lived, or died. In that moment, God pointed me to Psalm 103:15-18, which says, “As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.” God graciously gave me a peek into eternity that day. I can’t explain how, but by His Spirit, I was finally able to see that He really had always been good. I saw that this life is a blip in the static of the universe. I saw that to God, Chloe’s life wasn’t cut short, but lived to the full. It was just hard for me to see. Because unlike God who is in eternity, I am bound by days, weeks and years. And although my grief feels tedious at times, none of it will matter, when I am with Jesus, forever.
But life is still a challenge. And as I share what God has brought me through, I know there will be more that he will take me through.
Recently, Ted and I learned that our sweet, voracious little 7 year old, has Aspergers. As I understand it, Aspergers is the highest-functioning level of Autism, on the Autism spectrum. We’ve been in shock. But we also feel so much relief, having an explanation for why he is the way he is. We feel so grateful to God for his mercy in revealing to us the nature of his particular struggles. And I have been humbled. After the difficulties I went through as a child, trying to process my grief, I wanted so badly to understand my children – to be able to give them what they need, on a soul level. But it has been hard to understand him. And although Ted and I have been acutely aware that he has trouble with social interaction, I realize now how much I have yet to learn in my understanding of him.
But God is there.
I’ve learned (and I’m still learning) that Christ is all I need. I’ve learned that I don’t have to carry the crushing burden of pursuing worldly achievement or success. I’ve learned the deep comfort that comes from holding everything up to the Word, and being ok with letting things fall away. I’ve learned that I don’t need to fear dark, unseen forces, because Jesus has already defeated sin, death and the devil, at the cross. And I’ve learned that God is, and will make me the woman he’s ordained me to be – because He is able.
And because He is there.