On a weekend in mid-August, I was blessed to be part of a reuniting of hearts in Colorado Springs. Twelve years ago, forty college students from all over the United States (with one from South Africa) became the 7th class of the little-known Focus on the Family Institute (now called Focus Leadership Institute). Now, a lot of people have heard of Focus on the Family—and if not, they have most likely heard of its founder, Dr. James Dobson. Depending on your experience and even your political leanings, those names may evoke a warm fuzzy feeling or fill you with anger and put you on the defensive. I am not here to sort out your feelings about the organization itself, but I will put in that I think the anger and defensiveness are perhaps the result of misinformation. Focus on the Family exists to strengthen families, advocate for children and fight for marriages. Most would agree those are worthy goals. Regardless of the reaction it prompts in you, it will always hold a place in my heart as the setting for what was the semester of a lifetime—a truly life-changing experience for which I will be forever grateful.
In the course of our reconnecting over that weekend, my classmate and dear friend, Sarah, asked me if I’d ever told my story to anyone at Focus. During the Reunion, we were given the opportunity to share for a promo video that will be available on YouTube, but I missed my chance because my mind was more occupied with getting my children fed and meeting with my old friends. I’m not sure if I’ve ever given an official account to Focus. Even if I were to give one, it’s so hard to know what I would say. Parts of my story are very personal. I’d never hesitate to tell a friend face-to-face, but as for making a public proclamation, or writing it in a blog post, well—I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet. But something needs to be said. I need to somehow convey the way that God entered my life and touched my heart through the people at FFI. It needs to be spilled out—a monument to the God who loves me. And also as a testament to the Institute and the way God has used it in so many lives. The current financial climate has not been kind to Focus on the Family. A number of factors have forced the Focus Leadership Institute to separate financially from the larger organization of Focus on the Family. If they don’t have enough students over the next two semesters, the Institute will have to close its doors. That absolutely breaks my heart. So let me tell my story. And then let me urge you to encourage every college student you know to apply to and attend the Focus Leadership Institute. I have no doubt that God can and will use it in ways beyond your wildest imagination.
In May of 1997, my family of origin took a cross-country road trip. We visited Texas, the Grand Canyon, and Colorado Springs, where we toured the ministry headquarters of Focus on the Family. We’d finished our tour and I was making a purchase in the bookstore, when the clerk asked me if I was a college student. She told me about a semester program for college students—FFI. Right then something clicked and I knew I had to go. I planned to apply for the Spring 1998 semester. I am a procrastinator by nature, so I put things off a bit. I needed certain letters of recommendation and the deadline of November 1st was drawing closer. I remember going for a walk the week of the deadline and telling God, “Okay, I’m going to do it. I’m going to do everything I can to get that application in on time and if You want me to go, You’ll have to take care of the rest.” Miraculously, everything was ready the night before the deadline. I had finished my essays and collected my letters of recommendation. I would fax them from school on Friday. But that Friday morning we had a huge snowstorm. My college was closed. All classes were cancelled. All offices were closed. I could not fax the application! I think that was the only time in my entire four years that the whole school closed down due to weather. I called FFI in anguish—and they agreed to take my application the following Monday.
So, obviously, I was accepted. And this little church girl from Pennsylvania, who’d been home schooled her entire life and was still living at home and commuting to college, went thousands of miles away to a place where she knew no one. But, you see, describing myself as being home schooled and commuting to college is a poor way to represent my heart. I was meant for bigger things. And I knew it. A whole new world was about to open up before me.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened and when. At the beginning of the semester, my classmates would have described me as shy. My roommate (Love you, Susan!) would say she felt like she was walking on eggshells. I was afraid to let down my guard. And if something didn’t go the way I expected, I just clammed up. I didn’t want to discuss it and risk someone thinking I was less than perfect. Now, I don‘t think I realized I was this way. It was just normal to me. I’m not laying blame on anyone, but for whatever reason, my experiences had taught me that my self-worth was based on my performance. I thought I had to be perfect—and I was never quite smart, pretty, skinny, funny, or cool enough to be all right.
And then everything changed.
A lot of it had to do with a man named John Eldredge and the class he taught us on Christian Worldview. Required reading for the class was his book, The Sacred Romance (written with Brent Curtis). In our first class, John explained the questions we, as humans, ask. The most important one: “Who am I REALLY?” And this little church girl, in all her 21 years of indoctrination, had never really understood the true answer to that question.
I am God’s beloved.
I never knew that before. I never knew, really knew, deep down.
He. Loves. Me.
For me. Not for what I do for Him.
And I don’t think anyone can understand that until He shows them.
One of the teachers at FFI was the purest example of God’s love I’d ever met. Sheryl DeWitt was living, walking, breathing, love-in-action. She held my hand as I began a journey that would take—is taking—years to complete. She gently helped me peel back the first layers of false assumptions and pain that had paralyzed me. The arrows that had stunned my true heart were carefully dislodged. She saw me for who I really was. She was the first person who looked at all the pain and ugliness in my life, who took it all in and said, without hesitation, “I love you even more knowing all this about you.” I didn’t have to be perfect.
For the first time in my life, I was free. I could be the woman God made me to be. I didn’t have to live in fear of condemnation. The other students that semester saw me as I truly was—I had a vulnerability with them that I’d never been able to have before. I didn’t have to perform. There was no obligation or expectation. I just was myself and I lived out of desire, accepting the longings of my soul as God-given. My classmates described me at the end of the semester as free, open—there was a tangible difference.
I’ve been striving to live this way, and to allow others to live this way, ever since. A lot of you may think, “Alison, who are you trying to fool? I’ve read your blog. You still feel the pressure, the obligation and expectation. You still try to be perfect.”
Well, it’s a journey. It’s a daily struggle. Some moments I recognize God’s favor better than others. Sometimes I show His love and sometimes I don’t. God is using a lot of tools in my life to help me accept His never-stopping, never-giving-up, always and forever love. (I have to cite the Jesus Storybook Bible for that phrase!) His love for me isn’t based on how well I love others. But because He loves me, those times when I realize it, that love fills me up to overflowing and spills over onto those around me. So, I’m still learning. But one thing is for sure, if I had just gone on the way I was in January of 1998, I wouldn’t even be on this journey. I would be somewhere far off the path, trying to be perfect and trying to make everybody around me perfect, too. I wouldn’t have any of those glimpses of God’s love and I’d be a lot harder to live with than I already am. Now I know my Jesus well enough to say that He would never have let me go on that way. He would still be knocking on my door. But I’m so thankful I answered when I did.
At best I’ve only given you a tiny little glimpse of those four pivotal months of my college career. If you can imagine the place where you felt most accepted for who you are, most loved for being yourself, and then multiply that feeling ten thousand times, you might come close to understanding what happened to me at FFI.
Now, don’t you want God to move that way in every young person’s life? I know I do! Share this link with everyone you can. Spread the word. God is still moving.