Freedom Friday: I Am Not The Same

Today, Friday, is one of the very rare mornings where somehow I was awake before my beautiful 1 year-old baby girl. I snuck out of bed, searched for the baby monitor, and settled into my comfy chair to read some psalms.

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty!
My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

 

There is something about this familiar passage that is so life-giving. The song with these lyrics sings in my ears as I read – a song I learned in those early days of walking with Jesus.

My soul exhales.
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I prepared a teaching on Philippians 4 for the ministry this week. I wanted to share all my wisdom about how God’s Word would have us approach anxiety.

And wouldn’t you know it. I spent the 10 days leading up to the teaching, feeling more anxious than I have in a long, long time.

Times like these – I start to question myself. Why do I do this? I think. Who am I to say that Jesus changes lives? I’m as anxious as I’ve ever been.

There is something so familiar about these thoughts. Comfortable, almost. They are words I have heard in my thoughts for years. A voice of hopelessness.

In those low moments, I am unable to recognize those words for what they are, or whose they are: whispers of Satan.

This morning, I got down on my knees after reading a few psalms and repeated back to God:

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

I spent thousands of days elsewhere. I dwelt in the tents of the wicked. As I pondered these words, my soul exhaled again as God spoke to me:

You are not the same Brenna that you once were. Do not give in to the lies. I have changed you and will keep changed you.

I am not the same.

Fall in a park

The leaves are changing color here in New England. They have no control over it, but are submitted to a more powerful force.
 
The same is true of us. If you are a believer in and follower of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit in you is changing you day by day as you surrender your life to whatever He has for you. You may have some of the same struggles, face some of the same fears, but you are not the same.

 
If the anxiety returns today, so be it. Rather than wonder how long it will last, I will walk out the truths from Philippians 4 that I shared on this week:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
 
Don’t let the devil whisper into your ear. Listen to God. Pray, and sink deep into God’s peace.

Sharing God’s Story At My Home Church

I had the privilege of sharing the story of God’s work in my life at our now home church yesterday. “New” is relative – we’ve been attending this church since January 🙂 I still get a little nervous when sharing, despite having done it for so long. I get even more nervous sharing at my home church! But God is gracious and able and only good, and He sustained me. Lots of folks shared their own struggles or their experiences having children who are gay-identified.

Some folks who couldn’t be there expressed interest in reading it. So here it is 🙂

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I was born in May of 1975. With an alcoholic mother and a father who worked long hours, I spent much of my childhood alone with few close friends. I began experimenting sexually with girls at a young age. As a high school freshman, I began a physical relationship with my female best friend. Trying to make sense of what I was experiencing, I looked up “homosexuality” in a health book. The book said that if you had attractions for someone of the same gender, then you were gay. I remember thinking, “There it is, in black and white. I am a homosexual.”

This was not good news. I was living in a small NH town. This was 1990. That’s 7 years before Ellen DeGeneres came out and 12 years before Rosie O-Donnell. By age 16, I had a full-blown eating disorder and was also using self-injury as a coping mechanism.

Over the next 10 years, I had a series of lesbian relationships, including a long-term year relationship with a married woman. She and I had a mock wedding ceremony and from then on, she introduced me as her “wife.” I lived with this couple for close to two and a half years. When my wife suggested I have sex with her husband, I did what she asked. I had never been with a man before. This began a cycle of abuse from her husband. I never said no. I was a guest in their home and if I said something, I would have to leave. Proverbs 27:7 states, “One who is full loathes honey from the comb, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” The moments of love and acceptance I experienced with this woman somehow made the pain of the abuse tolerable. I didn’t know if I could live without her love.

My life spiraled out of control in many areas, not only in the area of my sexual identity, but also my eating disorder. Christians seemed to start coming out of nowhere to share about Jesus’ love. They never took it upon themselves to say that I should not be a lesbian. Like everyone else, I was a sinner in need of Jesus in my life. That was my primary need. My sexual behavior was only one of many indicators of my broken, sinful state.

One of these friends gave me a CD by a passionate Christian artist. His voice sang of a friend who was always there, a friend who would give everything for him. That friend is Jesus. And this was good news. In the midst of that song, I cried out to God saying, “I want what he has!” God, in His great mercy, honored my prayer on that day in January of 1999.

I asked hard questions, of myself and of God. Was it really even possible to break free of the chains that still held my life in so many ways, and give myself fully to my relationship with Jesus Christ? I knew homosexual behavior was a sin. I knew Jesus was more real than anything I had ever experienced. I was faced with a choice: continue to embrace the familiar, which was the gay identity I had lived for so long, or take a major risk and trust that Jesus would be and could be enough. I did what I knew I shouldn’t do: I entered into another lesbian relationship. After 3 months, the girl I was dating said, “Listen – you can’t be a Christian and be gay. The Bible says you must either be hot or cold – one or the other, but not lukewarm.” While quoting Scripture, she ended our relationship.

Soon after, I said, “Fine, God! I don’t want this. Please – take these desires away from me.” And in some ways, He did. While my desires for women lessened, the events and circumstances of my life that led me in the direction of lesbianism, an eating disorder and self-injury had not changed. I knew I needed more help and healing than just my prayer of surrender. Romans 12:2 says, “let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” I went to a Christian counselor who helped me transform the way I lived and the way I thought.

Still, besides my closest friends, I didn’t want anyone to know about my past. I mean, I had seen how Christians treated gay people on Oprah! They basically tarred and feathered them! I remember being at a campus ministry conference soon after I laid my sexuality at the cross. There was a couple there – the husband had come out of a gay past. I talked to his wife, giving me my first glimmer of hope that maybe there was another way. Maybe I didn’t have to be gay.

Fast forward through a lot of pain and hopelessness and wrestling with God, and God continually pursuing me and teaching me He is who He says He is and He will do what He has said He will do. It was the summer of 2002. I had just gotten engaged to my now husband Roy. I kept in touch with that couple I had met at that conference. I wrote to them, wondering if there was a way I could give back. They connected me with a ministry in Boston, Alive in Christ. Alive in Christ reaches out to Christians impacted by SSA, and they needed a women’s leader.

I thought, God, this can’t be Your will! I just wanted to lick envelopes! Did God really want me to build a ministry around this part of myself I wasn’t sure I wanted to speak openly about? I prayed and once again, like I still try and do every day, surrendered myself and my agenda at the cross. 8 months later, I became the women’s leader, and 1 year and a half after that, in August of 2004, I became the director of Alive in Christ.

Since then – well, I no longer have any issues talking about my same-sex attraction. It was a slow progression over the past 12 years, but in those years, I’ve been in the Boston Globe, on TV news, in 2 award-winning documentaries, on the TV show Pure Passion, and now speak at conferences around the US.

By the grace of God, I am married and have 2 amazing sons and a sweet baby girl. Still, I want to be really clear about something. I minister in this way despite the fact that I still experience same-sex attraction. It’s to a much lesser degree. Whereas once my same-sex attraction was like a swarm of killer bees, now it’s more like the occasional fruit fly. Experiencing temptation is not sin – but acting on it would be. Jesus was tempted – but did not sin. If we expect ourselves to never experience temptation, then we expect to be more free than Jesus.

I can serve and give, even out of my weakness, because God is God, I am not, and He never asked me to be! 2 Corinthians 12:9 says His power is actually made perfect in our weakness, in those places where I still struggle and have to admit that truly, apart from Him, I can do nothing. Gal. 5 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Freedom is not defined by how I feel; it’s defined by what He did. Freedom is not even defined by the mistakes I still make or how good my behavior is or how free I’m feeling on a particular day; it’s defined by the new identity God has given to me, and the freedom I’m learning to walk in. I am freed to serve, even out of my weakness, simply because of what Jesus did on the cross.

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Sharing my life with new folks reminds me of how very blessed I am – a husband I never thought I’d have, kids I never imagined I could be blessed with.

Truly grateful.

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Hope for Wholeness Conference, 2015

I just returned from an amazing Hope for Wholeness conference in the Asheville area of North Carolina.

The theme was Masterpiece in Process.

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I was very excited to reconnect with Bob Hamp, one of my unofficial mentors 🙂 Since it was in the elevator that we first met in 2011, he wanted to recreate the moment. That’s Meleah with the photo bomb.

Maggie, my daughter, spent most of the conference hanging off my back. Since you can only see the very tip of her head in the above picture, here she is, photo-bombing a shot with my friend and comedian, Christina Ringer.

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I can even play the guitar with Maggie hanging out back there!

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Conferences are my happy place, and this one was no exception. They also remind me that I have a blog 🙂 You can imagine that my life is busy as a mom of 3 and the director of a non-profit ministry. And you’d be right! But I miss writing and am hoping to check in with you more.

Perhaps I’ll even share the video of me rapping at the conference!

My Favorite #EmptyShelf Books of 2014

I finished 20 books in 2014 as part of the #EmptyShelf challenge. You can see them all lined up below.

This was difficult to do, as I read a lot of great books this year. Click the link below the book’s image to hear my thoughts on each.

Looking back on my choices, I see I didn’t pick a lot of variety! I didn’t read any fiction. I also didn’t pick much non-fiction than wasn’t a religious book, or that had a faith component (not all that surprising, I guess!). I definitely read more biography/autobiography than usual, which I enjoyed.

So here are my top 5:


The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears


If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat


Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption


Please Don’t Say You Need Me: Biblical Answers for Codependency


The Red Sea Rules: 10 God-Given Strategies for Difficult Times

And honorable mention:

The Cross and the Switchblade

Here are all 20:

           

Empty Shelf Challenge Book #20: “What Happens When Women Say Yes to God” by Lysa TerKeurst

I finished my 20th book for the #EmptyShelf challenge.


What Happens When Women Say Yes to God: Experiencing Life in Extraordinary Ways by Lysa TerKeurst

This New Year’s morning, I have been frantically trying to finish listening to the Lysa TerKeurst book Unglued: Making Wise Choices in the Midst of Raw Emotions. I really wanted to reach 20 books in 2014! I figured since I listened to most of it in 2014, I could count it. But as my husband asked me if I had read any other Lysa TerKeurst books, I realized I had listened to “What Happens When Women Say Yes to God,” but I never recorded it here.

The main speaker at a recent conference I attended is a missionary to India. She works in the Red Light District with the girls and women who are trapped in prostitution. Something she shared at the conference has stuck with me: every time we say “yes” to Jesus, it lays the foundation for the next “yes.”

Since I listened to this book about 8 months ago, I’ll just share a short review. Lysa had me in tears as she shared various stories of God’s faithfulness. It is amazing what can happen when we respond “yes” to God’s call. Not only does it give us the opportunity to bless someone else with our obedience, every “yes” declares that we will follow God wherever He leads.

An enjoyable and challenging book.

I plan to aim for 12 books in 2015. It’s a bit more challenging with a baby to get reading in, but I think this is a reasonable goal.

The books I read in 2014 as part of the #EmptyShelf challenge:

           

Empty Shelf Challenge Book #19: “Run to Overcome” by Meb Keflezghi

I finished my 19th book for the #EmptyShelf challenge.

Run to Overcome: The Inspiring Story of an American Champion’s Long-Distance Quest to Achieve a Big Dream

Everyone reading this knows I’m a runner. I talk about it quite often.

But what you might not know is I’m a running fan girl 🙂

I’m one of those people who thinks the Boston Marathon is the biggest sports event of the year. I had to work in the afternoon of Marathon Monday in 2013, but I was home long enough to see the elite athletes come in. Once at work, I was receiving text messages and Tweets from my friends as they crossed the finish line. My friends Robin & Colleen had already finished when my friend Dani started tweeting about a possible explosion shortly after crossing the finish line.

You likely know the rest of the story.

Thankfully, Dani and her family, as well as all my other friends, were safe. Many others were wounded and killed on that day. So on Marathon Monday in 2014, I knew where I would be: parked in front of my computer, watching the Boston Marathon.

As the elite men neared the finish line, my 6 year-old and I were jumping up and down, yelling, “Go Meb! Go Meb!!! Ggooooooo MMMMEEEEBBBB!!!!!”

Meb Keflezghi, a man who would turn 39 in just a few days (that’s “old” in the running world), became the first American man to win the Boston Marathon in over 30 years.

That was one of many reasons I was excited to get this book from the library.* I knew Meb was a man with a strong Christian faith. I also knew he overcame much hardship in his life (from Amazon.com):

Meb is the living embodiment of the American dream. His family came to the U.S. to escape poverty and a violent war; 12-year-old Meb spoke no English at the time and had never raced a mile.

This book takes the reader through Meb’s life with its victories and defeats. While the book does not have the captivating writing style of Unbroken, the simple way Meb describes the ups and downs of his life draws the reader in. His gratitude at the sacrifices of his parents challenged me. And the perseverance that brought him back from major injuries to win the Boston Marathon the year after such tragedy inspires me.

This book is definitely worth reading.

My books so far on the #EmptyShelf challenge:

           

*I read the original edition of this book because that’s what the library had. It was updated this year to include his Boston win.

Empty Shelf Challenge Book #18: “The Red Sea Rules” by Robert J Morgan

I finished my 18th book for the #EmptyShelf challenge.


The Red Sea Rules: 10 God-Given Strategies for Difficult Times by Robert J Morgan

I actually finished this just before my daughter was born. Trying to finish up these reviews before the New Year 🙂 It was recommended by my mentor Mike Olejarz in one of his newsletters.

From the book’s description: “Using the Israelites’ story in Exodus 14 as an example, Robert Morgan offers ten sound strategies for moving from fear to faith. Life is hard, especially for Christians.”

I can’t say that from the beginning I was super enthusiastic to receive the wisdom that this book has to offer. Red Sea Rule #1 is “Realize that God means for you to be where you are.” When I’m going through a trial, I’d rather blame Satan, the world, or even myself before I point the finger at God. But I appreciated the author’s perspective that God is sovereign over all things, and if we are in the palm of His hand, then we can trust He has a plan in the messiness.

As I read more and more of this book, I saw the story of the Israelites’ struggle and victory with fresh eyes. Morgan lays out 10 principles of how we can make sense of Exodus 14 and apply those principles to our lives.

I loved this book, and it’s difficult to put into words why. But it’s one I will be lending out a lot and revisiting myself.

My books so far on the #EmptyShelf challenge:
           

Freedom Friday: Jordan River Assignments

Guess who arrived October 8th?

Baby girl at 1 month old

Baby girl at 1 month old

She’s actually 7 weeks old. We’re doing great! She’s a healthy little girl who is most comfortable in her mommy’s arms, so blogging time is extremely limited!

That said, I wanted to share about a moment a couple of weekends ago. I went to speak and exhibit at the district Assemblies of God Women’s Retreat (yes, with a 5 week old – I should have my head examined). I was sharing something with a woman named Michelle at the booth next to me, something I noticed about the story of Joshua stepping into the Jordan River. This story has been such a central theme of recent years, I shared, that my daughter’s middle name is Jordan.

At that moment, a friend joined the conversation. She jokingly referred to my daughter as “Jordan River Simonds.” Michelle misheard my friend as saying, “Jordan River Assignments.” Wow, did that get my wheels turning!

Joshua’s Jordan River Assignment began with camping next to a flooded river for 3 days – a river he knew he needed to cross in order to reach the Promised Land. Many believe that Joshua 1:11 implies this was based on a directive from God. The 2nd part of his assignment was to have the priests step into that flooded river and trust that God would provide a way where there was no way.

While the actual assignment for the Israelites was to cross the Jordan, the heart behind the assignment was a command to trust God and to not be afraid. This is why God’s first directive to Joshua was to be strong and courageous (said here and here).

When facing the Jordan, the Israelites could have easily concluded, based on God’s history of parting bodies of water, “But doesn’t God want us to walk on dry land?”

They could have determined that the way God behaves = the way He behaved when He parted the Red Sea rather than determining to believe the truth about God: that in the midst of His call to be strong and courageous, He will carry us through whatever He calls us to.

We all have Jordan River Assignments – things that seem impossible for us. I wrote about this a few years ago. But God truly is able.

Sometimes God’s assignment for us is to let us camp on the riverbank at flood stage.

Perhaps you are camped on the riverbank of an assignment that seems impossible for you. You feel the spray of every obstacle as it splashes against your face.

God is calling you today to look beyond the overflowing river that is before you and to see the Promised Land. All that stands between you and the fullness of all God has for you is a few Jordan River Assignments.

Empty Shelf Challenge Book #17: “Please Don’t Say You Need Me” by Jan Silvious

I finished my 17th book for the #EmptyShelf challenge.


Please Don’t Say You Need Me: Biblical Answers for Codependency by Jan Silvious

Please Don’t Say You Need Me was mentioned in the back of a little booklet entitled Emotional Dependency, another resource I was reviewing for the ministry. Since emotional dependency and codependency are common struggle in the people I work with, I figured this book would be worth reviewing.

I’m so glad I read it! This was another book that I dog-eared like crazy. It’s truly a powerhouse of wisdom. It covers the roots and symptoms of codependency, as well as how codependency manifests itself in different types of relationships, including friendship, marriage, parent-child, and even in the workplace. It also has a chapter on how to maintain healthy relationships once you have recognized these patterns in yourself. The author does a wonderful job of weaving biblical truth into this struggle and healing from it.

If you have struggled with codependency or work with people who do, this book is for you.
My books so far on the #EmptyShelf challenge: