Not long ago, I shared my Miss America experiences with 5th and 6th graders at a small school in my area of Missouri. Some of the students were required to write a small report about my presentation. Here is what one of the young men wrote about me: “She does not look like a Miss America. She looks like a normal person.” Of course, he was expecting that Miss America would display her evening gown, crown, scepter, and bigger- than-life persona. Other comments from the students included: “She really didn’t seem stuck on herself at all, like I thought she would be. Best of all, I got out of seventh-hour Math!” Also: “I learned from her that the crown isn’t really the most prized possession of her life. She wasn’t that old-looking. It was amazing that she still remembers some of the experiences.” Lastly: “I thought she would have had plastic surgery since she was Miss America once, but she’s just a normal person.”
When being measured in the category of “pageant successes,” I might stand out of the crowd, but when the classification is “needy normal person,” I fit the average description. I’m so thankful that God has placed this needy normal person in the Body of Christ where we “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2, NKJV) and “pray for one another” (James 5:16, NKJV). The love of God through my brothers and sisters in Christ has been my lifeline to sanity during desperate times.
As it appears in The Message by Eugene Peterson, 1 Corinthians 12:26 reads: “If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.” Throughout my Christian life, there have been times when I have ministered to others. There is nothing more richly rewarding than being used by the Lord to bring comfort or encouragement to one who is needy. However, it is humbling and ego-shattering to be the needy one; to be on the receiving end of sacrificial prayer, love and support.
Even before I accepted Jesus as Savior, Christians were praying for me. While traveling as Miss America I would receive notes in the mail expressing that God loved me and had a plan for my life. Individuals I had never met would shake my hand and say, “I’ve been praying for you!”
Growing up in the church, I always believed in God and that Jesus died on the Cross, but had never heard the plan of salvation— that I needed to acknowledge my sin and that Jesus’ death on the Cross was payment for my sin. I had never admitted that I needed a Savior, I thought I could get to heaven by being good. Living a good, clean life and being kind to others, I thought that surely God would look favorably on me and let me go to heaven.
The Miss America Pageant and all it provided was a wonderful experience, but I can remember walking out of Convention Hall in Atlantic City after having crowned my successor, knowing that all the spotlights, glamour, excitement and travel still hadn’t met many needs I had within.
As I settled into Pittsburg State University (Kansas) to finish my degree, I explained away my feelings of unrest and questions about life; everything would surely be all right when I had completed my education, married, and had a family and some security.
I was married in January of 1969, moved to Jasper, MO, and in 1970 we had our first daughter. Outwardly, everything seemed to be going perfectly for my life; inwardly, however, the unrest and emptiness grew. What more could Miss America want? Happy family, plenty of money, education, home, possessions? Nothing really satisfied.
A neighbor invited me to a “Lay-Witness Mission” on June 29, 1971 where I realized through the testimonies of visiting lay-people that I needed to receive Christ as Savior and Lord. He was what I was missing! As you can see, the body of Christ was at work in my life!
The influence of loving Christians in my life certainly did not stop with my salvation experience. I can think of countless times when my family and I have desperately needed healing, finances, friendship, car repair, emotional support and lots of prayer. Jesus met our needs through His body every time. We were short a certain amount in order to pay our taxes one year, and a brother in Christ, not knowing the circumstances, gave us a check for the exact amount. Our daughter needed surgery. Because of the prayers of our church, she was healed before the surgery could take place. During her teens and early 20s, one of our daughters spent some time in rebellion and damaging life-styles. Our brothers and sisters in Christ just kept loving her, praying for her, contacting her, supplying her needs until she came back to the Lord. Words will never express the gratitude of heart toward these Christian soldiers who sacrificed their time, resources and efforts to come to our rescue.
But, will the body of Christ stick with me through divorce? In 2004 my pastor husband of 35 years left the ministry and left me. I was blind-sided by the whole thing. The rejection and shame were overwhelming. There were days when I cried constantly and didn’t want to get out of bed. I grieved and hurt and mourned and vomited. King David describes my emotions in Psalm 38: 8-10: “I am feeble and severely broken; I groan because of the turmoil of my heart. Lord, all my desire is before You; and my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart pants, my strength fails me; As for the light of my eyes, it also has gone from me” (NKJV).
The 11th verse states what I feared would happen: “My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague, and my relatives stand afar off.” Wouldn’t people think that this was surely my fault? “If she had been a good wife, he would have stayed. What did he need that she didn’t give him?” Would my Christian family reject me too? Would I be able to stay at my church? Would I ever be allowed to minister again?
Praise God, they didn’t reject me, but loved me, prayed for me, listened to my anger, cried with me, and hugged me on a continual basis. I’m so thankful for my church body that didn’t exclude me, but wrapped their arms around me in Christian love. They repeated to me, “The Lord’s grace is sufficient. You will get through this!” until I really believed it was true.
There were so many Sundays and Wednesday nights that I didn’t want to go to church. I was ashamed. I wanted others to care how I was doing, but dreaded them asking. I didn’t know what to say. However, I didn’t let myself stay at home, because I had already learned how important it is for every Christian to hear the Word of God and worship with other believers.
The Word of God brought life to me, because it “is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12, NKJV) The New Living Translation says, “It exposes us for what we really are.” During difficult times, each of us needs to hear the truth about our circumstances from God’s perspective. It’s very easy to be deceived when our perspectives are influenced by our emotions.
For me, God used His Word to go right to the heart of the matter, which was the condition of my heart. Here are some things I learned:
- “Even my best friend, the one I trusted completely, the one who shared my food, has turned against me” (Psalm 41:9, NLT). I must acknowledge the sin that hurt me, or I can never forgive it. I had been mistaken in thinking that to forgive another was to “excuse” him. God doesn’t excuse my sin, but allows Jesus to take the punishment for it. Likewise, I cannot excuse the sin of another toward me. I must purposefully relieve that person of his punishment (let him off the hook), because Jesus relieved me of mine.
- “Be angry, and do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26, NKJV). Anger, as we all know, is almost never the first emotion. Usually hurt, fear, shame, etc., come first. It didn’t take long for my anger to surface, but I tried to stuff it inside. Should Christians express anger? If so, how? I thought of running over my ex-husband and his new wife with my car. That would be the “be angry” part, but probably wouldn’t qualify for the “but don’t sin” part. I finally realized that the emotion of anger must be directed toward the sin. However, I must not assume God’s authority to dispense the punishment for that sin.
- “So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten . . . ” (Joel 2:25, NKJV). God’s desire is for restoration. As I watched the hurt this divorce caused to our daughters, sons-in-law, grandchildren, church and friends, I was hopeless that even God could pick up the pieces. I had underestimated His sovereignty, love and grace. Even though none of us are the same as before the divorce, we are experiencing restoration in every area.
The “making a living” thing was of great distress to me. Even though I taught piano part-time at Missouri Southern State University, the main breadwinner of the family was my pastor-husband. Again, the church blessed me with a salary as their music director, and I returned to school to obtain my Master’s degree.
Many circumstances connected with my “journey to gainful employment” were obviously miraculous. Having received my Bachelor of Music degree in 1970, I re-entered college in 2005 (at age 57), and actually passed all of my entrance exams! I completed my Master’s degree in 3 semesters and some summer classes with straight A’s. The last semester, I was enrolled in 19 hours, taught a full-time load at MSSU and gave my graduate piano recital. I won the Concerto and Aria competition at Pittsburg State University, and played Chopin’s 2nd Piano Concerto with full orchestra. This would not have been possible at age 59 without God’s grace!
Then, what I think is the greatest miracle of all, a fulltime, tenure-track, assistant professor position opened in the Music Department at Missouri Southern. I was hired! I have a real job! And, who was it that prayed for me throughout this stressful time? Right! The body of Christ! I could feel the prayer support during every test I took, every note I played in performance, and every time I feared the task was impossible.
My story isn’t unusual, I’m sure. All of us go through difficulties. I survived this desperate time in my life because the love of Jesus was poured out to me through His body, the Church. This love is real, genuine, and inexhaustible! The best part is, this love is available to all!
If you would like to have Debbie to come and share her story, you can
contact her via email at debs(at)suddenlink.net.