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A failed relationship, a health crisis, a job loss, the death of a loved one—all can cause us to hide out, go numb, give up. Before we even know it, we’re simply coping with life instead of living it to the fullest.
It happens to most of us at one point or another. For author and Bible study teacher Denise Hildreth Jones, it happened in the wake of her devastating divorce. But she fought desperately to reclaim her God-designed heart, and now, in her transparent, authentic style, Denise challenges you to do the same. Sharing stories from her own journey and others she’s walked alongside, Denise will help you identify ways you’ve given your heart to “lesser gods” like performance, people pleasing, and control, and how to find your way back to God’s design for your life—to laughing, loving, and living life to the fullest.
Also available by Denise Hildreth Jones, a companion novel, Secrets over Sweet Tea Tyndale House Publishers
Go to your bosom; Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know. WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE
I stood in the dressing room and stared at the fancy jeans I had just put on. Then I turned around to check my rear end. I hadn't done a booty check in a pair of jeans since I don't know when. Maybe never. But at almost forty years old, recently divorced, I was doing just that.
I left the dressing room and crossed over to where my mother sat in a chair waiting for me. Then I did the "girl walk."
Most men I know have no idea what this is. When a guy tries on clothes, he does the "robotic turn"—arms slightly stuck out from his sides, he turns around in a circle as he bounces slightly from one foot to the other, looking more like a waddling pregnant lady in her ninth month. To check his rear view, he pulls at the seat of his jeans, twists his head in a contortionist manner, then shrugs and decides it's not worth the headache. They stay up. He'll buy them.
But girls or women, in my experience, do something completely different when they're in front of a dressing room mirror. A woman keeps her body facing forward, takes a step away from the three-way mirror, and turns her head slightly to see how her booty looks. Then she slowly turns around and spends the next thirty minutes doing it over and over again—as if the view will be different the last time than it was the first.
Today, every backward glance made me smile. This was a marker kind of day for me, a defining moment—almost as momentous as the decision I had made five months earlier when I chose the clothes I would wear to court to begin the process of becoming divorced.
"What do you think?" I asked my mom. This is also something girls do. They take friends to tell them how they look. Men reluctantly take their wives, if anyone.
"They look good, baby." My mom is very Southern, so these words came out slowly. The word baby had three syllables.
"They're not too tight?" I asked.
"No, they make your rear end look cute."
I was almost forty. Cute was definitely a good word.
"I travel and teach people about Jesus, Mom. Seriously, do they look too tight?"
Mom laughed. She understood. When she married my father, a young new preacher, she couldn't even wear a wedding ring because of the restrictions in the denomination he served. She was well aware of what people in ministry were often expected to wear or not wear. Plus she has always been one of the classiest, most ladylike women I know. If she approved, I could run with that.
"They look fine, baby. You know your mother wouldn't lie to you."
I flipped my head for the tenth time. If I jerked much harder, I was going to leave with a new pair of jeans and whiplash. "They're cute, huh?"
"I like them."
"Well, I'm paying for them, so don't you worry about it." The jeans were going to be my Christmas present from my parents.
"I'm almost forty, Mom. Should I really be wearing these?"
"My forties were my best years. You enjoy wearing them."
I turned my body halfway around and studied the side shot in the mirror. The smile crept wide across my face. My fancy jeans looked really good on me. "You sure you want to get these for me?"
"Are they what you want?"
"Yeah, Mom, I really like them."
"Then let's get them."
I think I might have skipped a little as I returned to the dressing room that day. That was inappropriate, perhaps, for a woman my age but fully reflective of what was happening inside me.
You see, that moment wasn't really about jeans. Not really.
It was about something I had lost, something I was fighting desperately to regain.
I was fighting for my open, alive, God-created heart.
Let me give you a little background to show you what I'm talking about.
When I was fifteen, I usually went to school with a pair of boxer shorts sticking out from underneath a pair of cutoff sweatpants. That was the style at the time for kids my age. My mother was tortured over my style decisions, but she never said anything. My dad did, though. "You're seriously wearing that?" he asked me a couple times when he was dropping me off at school.
"Yep. Seriously" was all I offered. My wardrobe decisions might not have pleased everyone, but they pleased me.
The next year, when we moved from Myrtle Beach to Camden, South Carolina, I decided a new school required a more mature look. I graduated from boxers and sweatpants to skirts and sweaters. I even got my own account at a little store called Clothes Tree and paid the bills with money from my part-time job at a photography studio. I developed a pretty good sense of my own style. By the end of my senior year, I was even voted "best dressed."
By this point, unfortunately, my younger brother was cutting off every T-shirt he had right smack-dab in the middle of his chest, revealing his belly button. My poor parents. Just when one of their children was getting it together, another one was losing his mind.
As a college student and later, as a young graduate, I continued to enjoy my own sense of style. I met a young man, fell in love, and eventually got married. And somewhere around that time, there was another clothing shift. I basically stopped choosing my own clothes. I let someone else—my husband—define my style. Even during our courtship, he purchased many of my clothes for me. Rarely did I buy something myself, and if I did, I sought his approval first.
Now, I'm not saying that a woman shouldn't wear clothes her husband likes. Not at all. But in my case, letting my husband pick my clothes was an outward sign of a very destructive dynamic in our marriage. I couldn't see it then, but I can see it clearly now. It had a lot to do with what was happening between us and, more importantly, what was happening inside me. Bit by bit, my heart was shutting down.
As the fractures in our marriage began to spread more quickly than the new lines forming at the edges of my eyes, I finally took a stand—over a pair of jeans he wanted me to buy. They were beautiful jeans, expensive designer jeans. But they simply weren't me.
Clothes are personal. They should be a reflection of who you are. And as pair after pair of jeans made their way to my dressing room that day, I realized none of them came close. Standing there in front of the three-way mirror, I saw what those jeans represented. The man choosing them didn't really see me. I felt I had not truly been seen in years. And I wanted to be seen. Not as a label, not as an image ... just as me. As Denise.
In other words, there was no way on earth I was buying those jeans. I left the store without a single purchase.
That was a big stand for me. I was so broken back then that to take any stand at all was monumental. Those jeans represented everything wrong in my marriage, and it was the hill I chose to die on.
You know what's funny? The jeans I tried on that day, picked out for me by my former husband, were the exact same brand my mother bought me for Christmas the December after my divorce.
As I said, the jeans weren't really the issue. The issue was what those two moments revealed about my heart. The first spotlighted a fractured, dead heart. The second showcased an open heart coming back to life. It was another step past the one I described in my memoir, Flying Solo, when I chose "disposable" clothes but new shoes to go to divorce court. Now, some months later, I was giving myself permission to wear those fancy jeans. Not because anyone else on the face of the earth thought I should have them, but because my heart responded to them on that defining day, at that reclaiming moment in my story.
There is a store my second husband and I often pass whenever I can actually get him into the mall. "Babe," he will say, "whatever you do, don't buy me anything from that store." Again, he's talking about so much more than shopping. He is saying, "Let me be me. Let me be the man God created me to be." And I do—because I spent so many years not being the woman God created me to be.
If I say it once through our journey together, I will say it a thousand times. Once you know what it is to have your heart back, you will never let it go again. And you will do your best to never be a pawn in the enemy's scheme of shutting down someone else's heart.
How's your Heart?
Now that I've told you a little bit about my shut-down heart and one of the many ways it revealed itself, I'd like to ask you a few questions about your own heart. This is important because understanding where we are helps us understand how to get to where we're going. (If you have the Google Maps app on your phone, it's kind of like hitting the Route button when you've taken a wrong turn.)
You see, many of us have taken wrong turns in this life we've been given, and those turns have left us feeling lost. Or angry. Or fearful. Or controlling. Or weary. Or all of the above. Closed off from the person God created us to be and heartbreakingly shut down.
Could this be you? Think about it:
* If you are no longer doing things you used to love to do or have convinced yourself they no longer mean anything to you ...
* If you spend your time perpetually focused on the needs of others and pay no attention to your own God-designed needs and desires ...
* If you rarely have a real belly laugh or a good cry anymore ...
* If you rarely listen to music anymore or sing from the bottom of your toes ...
* If you don't feel things on a deep level anymore—good feelings or bad ...
* If you find yourself thinking often that one more car (or one more house or one more affair or one more piece of cake) will fulfill you ...
* If you haven't cut off the television or the noise in your ears for a while and just stopped and listened to the world ...
* If the thought of doing something spontaneous, breaking your routine, or having your plans disrupted causes your stomach to tighten ...
* If you haven't had an honest conversation about the stuff in your life in a long time—or if you can't even imagine whom you'd have such a conversation with ...
* If you're pretty sure that your past has disqualified you for your future ...
* If disappointment after disappointment has left you convinced that having another dream isn't worth the pain ...
* If it feels like other people are always pulling the strings of your life ...
* If you haven't really tasted your food in a long time or you've forgotten what kind of clothes you like to wear ...
... then it might be time for a heart check. Because laughing and loving and experiencing and feeling and tasting are all pieces of living, and some of us haven't done any of that in so long we're not sure we remember how. Some of us don't even want to try. We've been hurt, and we don't want to hurt anymore. We're tired of being let down. Or we're just plain tired. For one reason or another we've lost touch with who we really are, who God created us to be.
Friends, I understand. Believe me, I've been there. That's why I'm inviting you to take an amazing journey with me—a journey to a place of joy and freedom. What waits for you at the end of this road? Here is just a taste of the possibilities:
* You'll learn to enjoy that belly laugh, the deep-down, from-your-toes kind.
* You'll break the habit of running away from your pain and learn to run into it instead. Once you let yourself feel pain—truly feel it—you'll be able to learn from it, leave it behind, or live with it in grace instead of despair.
* You'll give yourself permission to have difficult conversations with those you love the most, and you'll be okay if there is friction or tension.
* You'll experience the freedom of releasing people to their Father instead of feeling responsible to rescue them from their pain or their anger or the consequences of their own choices.
* You'll enjoy the peace of accepting who you are and the enjoyment of just being you. That, my friend, is sweet peace.
Will all this come with a price?
Yes. A steep one.
Will it be worth everything you must do to find it?
Can it really happen for you?
Without a doubt.
You see, we have all been offered an abundant life. It is our birthright as children of God, our promised gift as followers of Jesus Christ. It is what we were made for, the way we were intended to live. And yet somehow, too often, it eludes us. It's almost like it's been stolen right out from under our noses.
So often we stop at the first part of John 10:10—"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy." Many of us understand that part of it. We've experienced how he steals our innocence, our marriages, our loved ones, and our dreams. Yeah, we know there's a real thief out there.
But that isn't where the passage ends. There is more. Thank God there is more! The Scripture goes on to say, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (NIV). Or as the King James Version so memorably puts it, "more abundantly."
Now that is a journey so worth taking. And today, right now, as you hold this book in your hands and determine that you will turn the page, you are declaring it is a journey you need to take. An expedition to take back the abundant life that has been stolen from you. To open up what has been shut down in response to painful life experiences and less-than-stellar choices. To live as the person God created you to be, the real you Christ died to save.
My specific story may be different from yours. What I have learned about the dangers of a shut-down heart and what it takes to reclaim it came through a traumatic divorce and its aftermath. Your experience may involve a difficult childhood, a soul-destroying job, a long grind through economic hardship, or some other life circumstances. But pain is pain—and the Lord's offer of abundant life applies to any painful, shut-down circumstances in which you may find yourself.
How do Hearts shut down?
I was sitting in McDonald's with my then five-year-old niece Lauren, enjoying Cokes. I was educating her on the joy of the McDonald's Coke burn and the follow-up of their salty fries when I began to study her little face. She was popping in those fries one after another. And in that moment I could see her twenty years down the road.
"Lauren, you know what?"
Her "what?" was slurred because of the four French fries she was currently chomping.
"When you grow up, you are going to be a mighty woman of God."
She never missed a beat. She just popped another French fry into her mouth and said, "I know, Aunt Niecy."
Doesn't that just take your breath away? It does mine because it is such a beautiful picture of an undamaged heart. There was no cynicism, no rolled eyes at the absurdity of my statement. There was just complete acceptance. Whether Lauren understood what I was saying or not, she was convinced of one thing: she could be anything.
You see, we don't come into this world jaded. We enter life with breathtaking dreams and open, trusting hearts, convinced that anything is possible. When we see Disney movies as little kids, we find it easy to believe that we can be Cinderella or Prince Charming, that our stories really will end with a happily ever after. We assume we can put on gold bracelets like Wonder Woman and deflect any bullets sent our way, or don a red cape and leap tall buildings in a single bound. We expect all those cakes we prepare in our Easy-Bake ovens to really be easy to bake. And we're sure that if we have just the right bat—and turn the bill of our cap just the right way—all the balls we hit will end up in the stands.
Eventually, of course, we grow up and get more realistic. And don't get me wrong—we should grow up. The problem comes when we grow up and forget how to live. When we take the hearts God designed to be alive, confident, trusting, and—most important of all—always connected to his heart, and we allow them to wither and fade.
That's not maturity. That's tragedy. And it can happen all too easily—if we don't carefully guard our hearts.
I think it's safe to say that we don't wake up one morning and say, "This is the day I'm going to stop living. This is the day I'm going to shut down my heart." So how does it happen? If we enter life with alive, carefree, completely abandoned hearts like my niece Lauren's, then how and why do they change?
The answer is pretty obvious: life.
Life creeps in and shuts us down.
Or more accurately, we encounter difficulties in life and we shut down in response.
For some of us, this happened in our childhood. Maybe it came in the form of stolen innocence—sexual abuse—or the trauma of physical or verbal abuse.
I remember a time when Tyler Perry, the creator of my favorite movie character, Madea, and the writer of my favorite movie, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, appeared on Oprah and talked about the sexual abuse he endured as a child. Oprah showed two pictures of him—one taken before the abuse and one taken afterward. He said, in essence, that the second picture, the one with "sad eyes," marked the place where his young heart shut down.
Excerpted from reclaiming your heart by DENISE HILDRETH JONES Copyright © 2013 by Denise Hildreth Jones. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 11, 2013
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