Janet Townsend: My Friend! She is a blessing. She is gentle yet strong. She amazes me with her knowledge of the word and is not fearful to share it. I’ve seen her struggle more than once and I’ve seen her pick herself up and dust herself off. People have tried to break her but she is unbreakable because she knows where her strength comes from. She trusts in her Lord with all her might and all her strength.
Whenever I hear the Stevie Nicks’ song Edge of Seventeen, I still crank up my radio and sign right along with it just like the white winged dove, signs a song sounds likes she’s signing. Oh that song takes be back to being 17 again, a time when I had my life ahead of me. I would ask myself, what would I be when I grew older? Who would I marry? How many children would I be blessed with? Would I be rich? Would I be happy? Would I travel the world or stay close to home? Endless possibilities and nothing to hold me back. One question I did not have to ask myself, would God be a part of my life?
As a young child, my parents would take my brother and me to church. We didn’t attend regularly, but I embraced the lessons I learned in Sunday School about how much Jesus loved me and that I was a child of a King. I truly felt the presence of God in my life and never really questioned His love for me even at a young age. When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with a severe case of Rheumatic Fever. It took several months before the doctors were able to diagnose my condition correctly and begin an effective treatment. I was in and out of the hospital so many times that all the nurses knew me by name and would recognize me immediately when I was admitted in the hospital. I could see the look of sadness on their faces when they rolled me into hospital room yet again. I had so many intravenous injections in my hips, they had to start giving them to me in my legs. I was in constant pain and it didn’t seem like my tears would ever stop flowing. I watched the worried looks on my parents faces when nothing that the doctors prescribed would help. I remember the agony of not being able to walk due to my joints being so stiff and swollen, my parents would have to carry me from my bed to the bathroom where I would soak in a hot bath just to get some relief. The pastor, lay members, and my sweet, sweet Sunday School teacher from the church we attended occasionally – Church of the Nazarene – visited the hospital and our home to pray with me. Everyone knew that I was truly sick and wasn’t quite certain what to do about it. But even during the midst of my pain and illness, I felt God’s presence and I knew I was in His hands.
My medical experience as a child helped me to appreciate Matthew 18:4 (NLT). So anyone who becomes as humble as the little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. I have always tried to live a life of true humility even at a young age. As I grew older, we did begin attending church on a consistent basis. At 12 years of age, I was baptized in a creek next to a river bank. I still remember that day as if it were yesterday – the water was so cold and the sun was warm. My family was there and my mother was so happy. What a joyful time for me. It was a reaffirmation that God was still present and real in my life.
As I grew older, I drifted away from the church. In my mid-twenties, after a short lived marriage, I felt the desire to get back into the church and a life of service. I started working at a small Methodist Church and then went on to work for a larger Methodist Church and a Christian College. While working at the larger church, I met an associate pastor. Three years later we were married. He had two pre-teen children, so I instantly became a mother and a pastor’s wife. One of my favorite Bible verses is Jeremiah 29:11(NIV) For I know the plans I have for you declares the Lord, plans to give you hope and a future. I felt that this was God’s direction in my life and I was living out His purpose. Our ministry required us to move every three to four years. It was becoming increasingly hard for me to stay close to God and I was losing the sense that I was living in His purpose. I am certain that sounds surprising, but true, especially being part of a ministry team with my husband. The place where you think you could easily find God, the church, I could not find Him there. My life became consumed with church meetings, women’s Bible studies, raising two children, working a full time job to help make ends meet, and endless demands from the church. It became too much and my desire for humility was replaced with anger and disappointment. Unfortunately, I turned from God and turned to alcohol. The child like faith that I once embraced was gone. I struggled with my addiction for about ten years. Finally I conceded I needed help. After many years of feeling abandoned by God, I found him in the most surprising place – AA. Just like the day of my baptism, I could feel the warmth of God’s presence in my life again. Even my child like faith returned and because what God had done for me, I was once again embracing a desire for a humble spirit.
A few years later I was faced with another personal heartbreak. After close to 25 years of marriage, my husband essentially invited me to leave our marriage informing me he was no longer happy and felt I would be happier returning to Kentucky to be closer to my family, we were living in Destin, Florida at that time. I accepted his invitation and packed up everything that I could get into my car and returned to Kentucky. Although this pain was different than what I experienced as a child, the tears flowed with the same intensity nonetheless. Instead of getting angry, I tried everything within me to remain humble and keep my childlike faith. 1 Peter 5: 6 & 7 NLT says So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time He will lift you up in honor. Give all of your worries and cares to God, for He cares about you. God brought me through some dark, dark days. And He took care of me; every need – physical, emotional, and especially spiritual He met with great swiftness and clarity. I knew I was in His hands and He would see me through.
As the days go by like a strand in the wind is the web that is my own, I begin again as the song goes. I am now on the edge of 56. My friends have told me that turning 56 is much harder than turning 55. You are now closer to 60 than to 50 they say. Most of the questions I asked myself when I was 17 have been answered. Yes, I would get married, but divorce after 25 years. I have no biological children but helped raise two step children like they were my own as well as being the best grandmother I could to three beautiful grandchildren. I am certainly not rich monetarily, but definitely happy. I have had the privilege to travel domestically and internationally. The question that remains what will I be? I find myself moving in a different direction professionally. No longer being part of a ministry team or parenting team, I am now asking myself what will I do with my life? I have decided to embark on a Master’s Degree in Ethical Leadership. My heart is leading me to focus on women in leadership and how women relate to one another in the workplace. After years of working professionally in Human Resources and seeing the struggles, and enduring a few of my own, that women have in the workplace, I believe God is calling me to use my gifts, skills, and now my education to make a difference for women who are coming behind me that need a voice. With God’s help, I want to be that voice. I must be honest, I am so scared striking out in a new direction especially during this phase of my life. Most people tell me to play it safe, get that job that will sustain you and live a quiet, comfortable life until you retire and then just have fun. I don’t believe God brought me through a life threatening illness as a child, alcohol addiction and recovery, a painful divorce, and professional disappointments to play it safe. He is calling me to do something more, something bigger with my life. Throughout the Bible, God uses His people at every phase of life: David as a child then Israel’s anointed King as an adult, Sarah’s birth of Isaac at a later age, and Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt at 80 years old. Now, I believe that God is using me to live out His purpose, the building up and empowerment of women.
Let me end by saying, as much as I enjoy listening to the songs of my youth and getting that rush of nostalgia, it has always been scripture, prayer and my daily quiet time with the Lord that sustains me. As I start this new phase of my life I ask for your prayers. Pray that I don’t grow weary and can stay the course that God has put me on. God has put a new song in my heart, the lyrics have yet to be written, and the melody is a small note in my mind, but I am confident this song will blare for God as He walks with me as I live my life on the edge for His glory.
Thank you Lord for placing women like Janet in my life. Amen!