Serena Woods: UNMASKED

I distinctly remember the day that I stumbled upon Serena Woods’ blog, Grace is for Sinners. I started reading her story and tears were streaming down my face within 5 minutes. The details of her journey mixed with the earthiness with which she wrote was a combination that I could not turn away from. Calling Melody into the room, I wiped the tears from my face and said, “Honey, this girl GETS grace.” Like me, Serena experienced the overnight plunge from pristine image to moral leper and has the emotional scars to prove it. The courage that she exhibits as she boasts in her weaknesses without making excuses is a trait that I want to emulate daily. Join me in welcoming Serena to the Route1520 blog. Please share this exceptional post with your family and friends. I became a Christian when I was 19. I grasped the theology that God offers a clean slate to the messed up and a new life to those who want to start over. I was coming from a place of hopelessness and fragmentation. I was the child of a 15-year-old gypsy. We lived on the streets and in the back seat of cars. I was tortured and abused by the men in her life, but always held out hope that I would have a better life one day. When I was taken away from her and put into foster care, I was taught to pack my pain away and focus on my future and possibilities. When I was adopted at 10, I was told to forget my life before 10 and embrace my new life and new name. When left home to live on my own at 17, I decided to forget my life before and start over. Starting over with no foundation proved to be impossible and I sunk into the hopeless legacy that my mother gave me. I was finished with my life and looked forward to something snuffing it out. When I got pregnant at 18, I needed to figure out a way to not be my mother so that my daughter would not have to be me. I was four months along when God started whispering promises to me. Christianity was the furthest I could run. And so I ran. Christianity became my lifestyle and I was devoted to the practice. My life as an abused child of the streets was gone. My life as a foster kid was gone. My life as a runaway was gone. I did not exist before 19. All of my segments were packed away with my pain and I was a shell, waiting to be filled. I did everything I was taught to do. I studied my Bible so that I could join the conversation. I prayed. I witnessed. I shunned sinners like they were sin. My identity resided in who I was at church. My outside layers were built on performance and the amount of distance I could put between where I stood and where I came from. I spent nine years building a thick, impenetrable layer of religion over the shell of the nothing that I was. Religion saved my outer life. Because of how much my religious environment changed the way I viewed my inner self, I devoted every aspect of who I was to maintaining it. I wasn’t damaged goods because I didn’t do bad things. I never questioned my Christian friends and leaders. They didn’t come from the pain and filth that I did. They were bred and raised church pastors, pastors’ wives and leaders. I based my life on their standards and I copied their faith. God needed to strip away that thick layer of religion and reliance on anyone besides Him. I couldn’t hear Him because I always filtered Him through my church. He didn’t want me to be segmented and He didn’t want me to think I had a relationship with Him when I just had a relationship with His people. He chose to use my failure to as the wrecking ball to the thick wall I had built around myself. I thought that I was protected in my fortress of religious conviction, but I was just a slave. When my fortress couldn’t protect me from myself and my Christian friends didn’t have the answers, I was forced to find God on my own. My life depended on it. I mourned the loss of what I put my faith in. I mourned the loss of myself.  Everything I had accomplished, everything I put my trust in, every person I looked up to was reduced to ash and I was naked, lost and terrified. I found myself in a place where my faith wouldn’t die. I was going to make it even though I went through something that should have destroyed me. I kept waiting for the sun to fall out of the sky, but it never did. Instead of despair, I found another chance. Like the devil didn’t know I was dead yet. I was left with questions. My questions were prodding’s to discover the truth. The truth undid everything. If I can fail so horribly and still be given another chance, then why do we live fear driven lives? What was it that I was taught that made me so terrified when I messed up? What is it that my friends believed that made them run from me like I was the mouth of a fire-spitting volcano? My identity was no longer found in how good I could be or in how much distance I could put between my past and me. I am not a segmented woman with fits of starts and do-over’s. I’m me. All of me. I am my Father’s daughter. There are things that counteract our common sense. There are questions about purpose and meaning that go unanswered. God allows things to happen because we can see Him in the contrast between what was intended to be and what He ended up using it for. He is a junkyard artist making beauty from broken. If you look at why the pieces are broken and you focus on the shards of what could have been then you’ll miss the beauty in the art. You miss the message in the irony. We’re looking for Him in the wrong places. I hate what I did. I hate who I was. But, I wouldn’t wish it away. I never want to go through that hell again, but too much beauty has come from so much tragedy.  The thing that caused me the most pain in my life, my own failure, is the thing that brought me the closest to God. Have you ever hid behind the mask of religion? If so, what did it take to break that mask?    ]]>


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    So many people living a prodigal son/daughter life come back to the Father only to quickly become an older brother/sister living in slavery to what they think the Father expects of them, not realizing at all the gracious nature of the Father they were partying with just moments earlier. I remember writing an essay on wearing masks for my english class when I was seventeen. By that time I was at least six years into my addiction to pornography but always had people coming up to me telling me that I should be a preacher. I ran from that calling for years because I knew the me that they didn't know. The mask started to come off one night after I dropped off a kid I had taken to the youth group gathering that night. As I drove home listening to worship music, not for my edification or love for God but merely practicing to lead worship with the youth group, one of the songs grabbed me. I pulled the car over and through sobs I confessed that this song I was singing (Lord you are more precious than silver and nothing I desire compares to you) was not how I really felt at all. I think that while I was sobbing that it wasnt true it actually was becoming true. I was beginning to realize that living a double life was impossible but I was also realizing that God could use my struggles, my failings, to strengthen and warn others. I stopped running from my calling to ministry and began to see how being honest with people about my struggles can be so healing. Of course, the temptation to wear a mask is always there (and I have picked up the mask many times) and that is why having a community of brothers and sisters who are, through the grace of God, open about their struggles and boast in their weakness is so important to my continued recovery. I need to be in this constant dialogue of what a hell it is to wear the mask and live in slavery rather than living in freedom and relationship with my Father and brothers and sisters. Thanks for kicking off the conversation today!

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      Traylor Lovvorn

      Very well said, Garrett! I want to thank you for the many ways you use your brokenness to help so many. I admire your limp, brother! Grace looks so very good on you!

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      Serena Woods

      Garrett, there is nothing that compares to the worship had amongst those who have been broken, is there? I'm so glad to be part of a large community of the 'unmasked'. A place where no one can boast perfection, but simply melt in the gratitude of overwhelming Love.

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    Serena – I've read your story so many times at different times and in different places and it always touches my heart profoundly. thank you for being so courageous and sharing so beautifully here

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    Serena….love what you wrote and I have loved your book. There is something different in the grace among the broken. Thank you for sharing your journey.

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    Dawn Phenix

    woe…that could be my story, to a tee. I hope it's okay to repost this and share it with my friends. I'm hoping it will give them some insight into what happened with me. I'm also glad to know that what I experienced was from God. Your testimony is confirmation for me. Thank you for sharing it.

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    Beautiful. I wouldn't trade my unmasked life for anything. There is tremendous amount of freedom and strength and peace found when we admit how broken we are and how desperately we need a Savior.

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    Serena, Your book is such an eye opener….. Reading it I find myself thinking I've been through that, & that, & that…. It took me so long to feel God's grace mostly because I didn't feel worthy of it…. Isn't it something while we're going through the tria, l the sacrafices he's urgeing us to give seems so much bigger @ the end of the trial than @ the beginning…. God is so good I'm so greatful for his love and mercy…. Thank you so much for sharing your triumph with us. May God richly and abundantly bless you and your family..

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    Margaret Kliewer

    I knew your mother. When she ran away from home in Utah at age 14, my mother and father took her in from the streets and she stayed with us for about 6 months in Tennessee. You were named after my mother Serena. I met you when you were just a baby and then again when you were about 3 years old. One day I would love to tell you the whole story about all of that. I just want you to know that my family and I are so very proud of you and what you have done with your life. You are an amazing young lady and may God continue to bless you always. Would love to get the chance to talk to you if you are ever interested.

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    God has used difficulties in my life to show me a mask I'm wearing and to remind me that I won't experience a fulfilled life behind one. During a particularly difficult time, He showed me I was wearing a mask which cleverly concealed issues.
    At the time, my life was full of turmoil. My daughter was going through a painful experience that affected me deeply yet which I could not fix or control. When I focused on God, I did most of the talking. Non-stop panic prayers formed most of my communication with Him. Because of His great love for me, He didn’t force me to be quiet and listen. He waited for me to tire of doing things in my own strength.
    When I sought help and guidance, I learned about Listening Prayer in Mary Geegh’s book, God Guides. Through Listening Prayer, I began to understand that God wanted my companionship. He wanted a closer relationship with me. He longed for me to wait in His presence and listen to Him.
    Once I began listening and God had my full attention, I was amazed at what He said. He spoke to me about the issues I was hiding behind my Perfect Ten mask—much like He addressed the issues in the life of the Samaritan woman. What He revealed to me caught me by surprise! I discovered I lacked compassion, humility, and the willingness to forgive. I was able to appear like I had it all together; why couldn’t other women do the same? I’d focused so much energy on generating that perfect image, I’d been oblivious to cancerous cells of pride growing rampantly behind my mask.
    I was a seasoned Christian; you would think compassion, humility, and a willingness to forgive wouldn’t be new territory for me. Though I’d exercised these character traits to a point, I still had a long way to go in practicing them in all areas and when the pressures of life increased.
    Once I recovered from the shock of exposure, I discovered I didn’t feel condemned by God. I felt overwhelmed by His love. This resulted in a full-blown conviction to change and remove the Perfect Ten mask. I experienced His great love for me in the midst of my weakness, and this knowledge spurred me forward.
    William P. Young (The Shack) expresses God's love well. "For now I [God] just want you to be with me and discover that our relationship is not about performance or you having to please me. I’m not a bully, not some self-centered demanding little deity insisting on my own way. I am good, and I desire only what is best for you. You cannot find that through guilt or condemnation or coercion, only through a relationship of love. And I do love you."
    Even though I never experienced condemnation from God about the real me under the mask, I wasn’t sure I’d be as well received by people. As I grew in the experiential knowledge of His love, I began to realize it didn’t matter what others thought of me as long as He loved me. Still, moving past the fear of living without a mask has been one of the greatest challenges of my life.