HOW GOD BECAME MORE REAL TO ME
Where there is great love, there are always miracles.
One day, my trainer introduced me to Ryan, a redshirt football player for the University of Iowa. I learned he was in town to support his older sister, who was battling stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He’d come to offer encourage-ment and help her with her four kids. I immediately liked him, and it seemed reciprocal. After a Facebook mix-up (in which he sent a message to the wrong Shawn John-son), we began hanging out: I went to his games, we hung out in Iowa City, and he even came to my mom’s birth-day party.
One night, I had an idea.
“Why don’t you come to West Des Moines? I’ll take you out for a real date—my treat.” Even though I love it when guys act like gentlemen by paying for dates, I sometimes feel bad when they’re always expected to pay. He was a college student, after all.
The next week, he drove to West Des Moines, and I took him to HuHot, my favorite Mongolian restaurant. It’s a little loud and decidedly not romantic—in other words, it was perfect. We ordered our appetizers and drinks and then walked around to the grilling area to decide among the many food options. At this restaurant, the customers select vegetables—my favorite!—meats, and then sauces. We piled our bowls high, passed them to the chef, and watched as our food was prepared on a huge grill.
We ordered a lot of food—partly because Ryan is a big football player who needs to eat large portions, but mostly because I wanted to treat him to a nice evening. After we ate our meals, we ordered the cheesecake empanadas, desserts that look like ravioli but are actually filled with cheesecake.
Why not? I thought. Since I was paying, we just kept racking up the bill. When we got the check, I made a big show of grabbing it and handing the waitress my credit card.
“Remember,” I said, “this is on me!” As we finished nib-bling the last of the empanadas, I felt our date had been a resounding success. But just a few minutes later, the wai-tress sheepishly approached my side of the table.
“Miss Johnson,” the embarrassed waitress said, slipping my credit card into my hand. “There seems to be a problem with your card.”
“It didn’t work?” I asked. But then I could tell by her ex-pression that she was trying to help me save face.
“Oh,” I smiled at Ryan. “Don’t worry. I have another credit card in my car.” I ran outside and scrounged through the console and the glove compartment for another credit card. I found sunglasses, an old parking ticket, and some stale gum, but nothing that would help me get out of this humiliating situa-tion. I grabbed my phone and hoped Mom or Dad would answer.
“Mom!” I said into my phone. “My credit card was de-clined!”
“What?” she asked.
“I may have forgotten to pay on time or something,” I said, realizing that every second spent in the parking lot was making it more awkward for Ryan. “What should I do?”
“I don’t think I can get there in time,” she said.
“He’s never going to go on another date with me!” I cried into the phone, finally slamming the door shut and hanging up.
When Ryan saw me slink back into the restaurant, hanging my head in shame, he smiled and gave the wai-tress his credit card. I figured I’d never see him again.
Surprisingly, Ryan didn’t stop calling after I stuck him with the bill at HuHot. We kept hanging out, and our friendship grew. After my time in Hollywood, Ryan helped bring me back down to earth and made me realize that I’m a Midwestern girl at heart. Like me, he comes from a close-knit, physically active family. My parents have always loved nature and the outdoors, and his family does too. They own a cabin on a lake in Iowa, and Ryan loves to hunt and fish. As a college football player, he is committed to athletics and a healthy lifestyle, just like I am.
Early in our relationship, I let Ryan read a few of my poems. One day, he jokingly told me that he would know I really cared for him only if I wrote a poem about him. In fact, as our friendship deepened, that’s exactly how I chose to express my feelings:
It’s strange how guys come in and out of your life,
always hoping they’ll be Mr. Right. . . .
They’ll change you and make you want to cry.
And never really understanding why,
you’ll notice that with each one you seem to change,
adapting to interests so you seem the same;
acting for some and hiding for others,
just wanting to be accepted and love each other.
But it’s the ones that end wrong and seem right from the start
that change you the most and break you apart.
You act like a stranger and look in a mirror
and don’t even recognize who’s standing there.
Unlike the guys I’d dated who were drawn to me because of what I’d done, Ryan was interested in the person I was inside. As a result, I felt I could relax around him and be myself:
I don’t know where he came from or how long he will stay,
but I promise that I can safely say,
I am now happy, and it is the first time in a while.
And around him it’s my heart that seems to smile.
In the summer, Ryan moved to West Des Moines to be closer to his sister and her husband. He took care of their four kids, mowed their grass, and shopped for groceries. Though I couldn’t do much to help, I volunteered to take the kids to the movies and out for ice cream. I thought the extra attention might help distract them from the day-to-day reality of their mom’s sickness.
Anything I did for those kids was nothing compared to what Ryan’s sister did for me. I never saw her complain. When I went to Omaha with the family for her chemotherapy treatments, everyone seemed to be faithful, patient, loving, and—most of all—prayerful. People from their church and neighborhood provided a hot dinner every night. A cleaning service donated their time to dust and vacuum her home, since she wasn’t able to follow her four young children around with a mop. Ryan’s parents sometimes brought the kids to their home for a week.
I never sat down with Ryan or his family to have an in-depth theological discussion. But I learned a great deal about God’s love by witnessing Ryan’s family and their church wrap their arms around his sister during this terrible time. It was much more powerful than any sermon could be.
When her cancer went into remission, I considered it a miracle.
Ryan’s mom is the director of spiritual formation at a church, and I think she understood right away that I was searching to understand and grow in my faith. For my birthday she gave me a daily devotional that included a prayer and a Scripture reading for every day of the year. Each morning as I opened that book, I read about God’s goodness and provision. She gave the same book to Ryan. Though we were two hours apart, reading the same devotional each day kept us connected.
As Ryan and I talked about our faith, God became more real to me. Maybe this sense of God’s presence was just a natural by-product of the way I had been raised. My par-ents had faith and were absolutely rock-solid about doing what is right, but I realized that I could also learn something from Ryan and his family. Like my parents, Ryan’s family didn’t preach to me. However, as I spent time with them that summer, I noticed that they just oozed peace, joy, and love, even though they were living through the worst time of their lives. They were always positive and taught me to leave everything to God, because when we try to manage everything on our own, it’s too much for us to handle. That’s when we realize that God is the one who’s in control and that he does a better job of it than we do.
As I reflected on the Bible, my faith began to deepen. When I was a little girl, I loved going to vacation Bible school at Lutheran Church of Hope, and my parents and I had attended services there occasionally as I was growing up. Now we began going more regularly. During a service in the church’s early days, my mom recalls the pastor tearfully confiding that he wasn’t sure if the church was going to succeed. Today it is the largest church in the city.
Lutheran Church of Hope’s size is not what appeals to me, though. Instead, it is the feeling I get whenever I attend on a Sunday morning. No matter how many services I’ve missed because of out-of-town engagements or training, when I return I feel like I never left. Pastor Mike and the leaders welcome everybody—from the polished professional who comes in a suit to the harried mom who shows up in sweats.
My church is a safe place for someone like me who grew up feeling embarrassed because I had no idea who my friends were talking about when they mentioned people in the Bible. The church leaders don’t expect anyone to recite names and dates; their concern is that each person grows in faith and in love for one another and for Christ. They want us to understand that God’s love for us doesn’t depend on anything we might do.
Ironically, I had come home from Dancing with the Stars convinced that I needed to find a new identity for myself. Thanks to my parents, Ryan’s family, and my church, I realized that my true identity comes from some-thing other than my accomplishments and that lasting happiness will never be found in another medal or trophy. True and lasting joy, I discovered, is the by-product of living in the countercultural way described by the apostle Paul two thousand years ago: “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love” (Ephesians 4:2).
This type of life might not get much airtime in the glittery, highly choreographed world of Hollywood, but by early 2010, I was discovering that my contentment began and ended with simple things like faith, hope, and love.
Lesson I’ve Learned
Now that I’ve opened up my heart, I’ve seen what good can come from finding someone who loves you for who you are—not for titles, fame, or glamour. Nothing brings more peace and joy than being loved for who you are.