The Women of Faith Conference dates were announced on a Sunday morning at my church a couple months ago. Soon after that, the groupleader for the event from our church approached me to let me know that someone had bought some extra tickets so that other women who normally wouldn't be able to afford it could go, and she was wondering if I would want one. I had never heard of the Women of Faith Conference before, but I thought if someone was offering a free ticket I might as well go and see how it was. Between then and last week when I saw I had taken 5/13 off from work and couldn't remember why, I'll be honest that I had completely forgotten about the conference and hadn't looked up any information about it whatsoever.
On top of that, someone else had told me that the conference was kind of like a women's version of Promise Keeper's. I know that that organization has been a big help and encouragement to a lot of men, and I'm not going to make any statement either way on how beneficial it is as I've (obviously) never been to one and that's not the purpose of this blog post or what I would want to focus on anyway......
But regardless, I wasn't sure if a women's version of PK was what I really wanted to spend a whole weekend taking part in. Since someone else had paid for me to go, I was still planning on going on Saturday, but Christopher had to talk me into going on Friday night - he felt I was misjudging what I may or might not get out of it and thought I should at least try it before deciding how beneficial to me it would be.
I'm really glad Christopher talked me into going. My favorite speeches definitely happened today, but if I hadn't gone last night as well I don't know if my heart would have been as ready to receive what these women had to say. I was a little bit skeptical because I had no idea what to expect. Anytime I've been to a women's conference or even large-scale get-together before, it's been one of two things: either a "spiritual love fest", with no real content and focused only on how the praise music is supposed to make you feel about Jesus, or it's seemed like the speakers were expected to only bring forward and teach "tutorials" on how to live the Christian life - as a woman - in certain contexts and situations. Nothing personal is talked about, except for the occasional funny family story, and you leave with a myriad of caveats to take home that you may or may not remember a couple weeks later. To be clear, I have nothing against (most) Praise and Worship music, and I love hearing new perspectives on the Bible to apply to my life; but in my personal experience a focus on feelings without Bible teaching leads to a shallow spiritual experience, and Bible teaching without bringing in personal experience and teachings leads to a lot of head knowledge without much personal spiritual growth.
At the Women of Faith Conference this weekend, there were all these things - the worship team was awesome and the songs were heartfelt and sincere, and I never felt like I was being expected to respond a certain way outwardly. These were just women happy to present their love and faith in God through song, inviting the guests there to join along in worship. The speakers and musical groups (Mary Mary and Selah) were very sincere, and there was a lot of Bible teaching and exposition. There were even plenty of funny family stories. (I can't remember the last time I laughed so much.)
But even though all these things were wonderful and memorable and extremely encouraging, they are not the reason I am walking away from this weekend hardly able to wait for next year's conference. It's because the women who shared this weekend were so open and vulnerable with the audience, that soon we no longer felt like guests, we felt like - as they said they were hoping we'd feel - like a whole arena full of girlfriends, there for each other, to encourage each other and grow together.
The whole experience was just so encouraging. Every single woman who got up on that stage looked so put together; they all had cute shoes and great clothes and perfect makeup. I think, from experience, they knew how it can appear to those who don't know much about them. They immediately did their best to show us that they were just normal people. (Mary Mary especially talked about that - as Grammy winners and musicians much more in the public spotlight than the average Christian signer - they acknowledged that people might be wondering "what's so hard about your life? You're beautiful, famous, popular and talented! What on earth could be so hard in your life that you can understand and empathize with what I've gone through?") One reoccuring theme through the whole weekend was how everyone - no matter who they are or what they do - have brokeness that needs to be healed by God.
Sheila Walsh shared how she experienced brokeness as a child when her father suffered brain trauma that resulted in mental illness. Before his injury, she had been his daddy's little girl. Conversely, after the accident, whenever he went into one of his rages, she was the one he targeted. She knows now that it was the affect of the trauma, and that he didn't know what he was doing, but imagine what it would be like to be four years old and see hatred towards you in your father's eyes. Eventually, his rage got so out of control that he tried to kill Sheila, and her mom had to call the police. It took 6 men to drag him out of the house and bring him to a pyschiatric hospital; that was the last time Sheila ever saw him, as he later snuck out of the hospital the first night he was moved from the high security ward and drowned himself.
Nicole Johnson shared how her parent's divorced when she was 6 years old, and as her parent's could not work out together the custody issue regarding her and her sister, they went to custody court. Sheila and her sister were both put on the stand and had to answer the judge when he asked them to choose which parent they wanted to live with. This so wounded Nicole, she decided she would live her life doing her best to never disappoint anyone ever again.
Angie Smith's story was so heart-wrentching, but also so filled with hope and grace. She and her husband Todd - one of the singers in the band Selah - have three beautiful little girls, but when she was 20 weeks pregant with their fourth daughter, at a doctor's appointment they discovered that the baby would not be "compatible with life." Her kidneys had not developed correctly, neither had her lungs. They decided to carry her for as long as God would allow them to have her, and Angie was able to carry her long enough for her to be born. She was born alive, and they were able to spend some precious moments with her, and then she was gone. One of the most touching things about Angie was how nervous she was about speaking. This weekend was only her second time being a speaker with Women of Faith, last weekend being her first in Columbus, OH. Her legs were shaking so badly when it came time for her to share, Sheila Walsh and Lisa Harper had to support her as she made her way up the steps to the platform in the middle of the arena.
There were so many other stories of heartbreak, brokeness and trial that the women shared with us this weekend. The thing that so amazed me was that that's why they were there! They weren't there to teach anyone how to fix their lives, or to give a list of steps to take to get out of this situation or that. They were there to share the brokeness they had experienced - in some cases still experiencing - and to share how God had healed and continue to heal them. The women at this conference only had one purpose: they want Christian women to know the mercy, love and healing they have experienced by the grace of God.
It was just so refreshing and powerful, these women being so vulnerable with us and willing to share some of the darkest parts of their lives and how God met them there.
One other thing Sheila Walsh shared that I want to touch on right now: her wounding as a child from the experience with her father's brain trauma and mental illness caused an emotional wounding in her that led to a battle with mental illness herself. She is now very open about talking about it and sharing it, and I was very affected by a story she told about her first night in the psychiatric hospital. Because of where she was at emotionally and mentally, she was on suicide watch the first night and a nurse would come and check on her every 10-15 minutes. She didn't sleep in the bed in her room that night, she just grabbed the blanket and curled up in the corner. Around 3am she heard someone stop by the room again, but it had happened so many times already she just assumed it was the nurse checking in her rounds again. She didn't realize this visit was different until she saw a man's feet in front of her and felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up, she didn't recognize him, but she didn't think much of that as it was her first night there. But then he handed her a stuffed animal - a lamb. He then walked toward the door to leave, but before leaving turned back to her and said "Sheila, I just want you to know that your Shephard knows where to find you."
Sheila shared that she was at that hospital for several months, and she never saw that man again. She is convinced that that man was an angel.
I'll continue to process the experience over the next several days (and maybe weeks), and I'll continue to blog about it. What Luci Swindoll (yes, sister of Chuck Swindoll) had to say especially spoke to me personally. I'll try to share more of that specifically tomorrow. I'm also hoping to get some of the books by these women and I'll continue to write here about my processing through them as well.