Bright hope for tomorrow

by Sarah Stonier

I was recently driving through St. Louis long after the sun had dipped below the horizon. I noticed in the black of the evening a mother and son standing at a bus stop.  They were not dressed for the cooler weather.  Her arms were wrapped around him the way a mother silently tells her child everything will be ok. White trash bags were at their feet, filled with what appeared to be all they held dear in this world; indicating this was not a planned journey, this was a flight. I felt like I was staring at an imprint from a world I knew not so long ago. I prayed for them in earnest and their image stayed with me long after we drove away.

I wanted to access their story in the way that I can click on a link or download an app and instantly drink in classic literature, breaking news, presidential biographies and the like. I wish there was a way to be intimately aware of the struggles of our fellow man. If their stories could somehow be attached to them granting us instant perspective, even if it was just a one word hash tag that would encapsulate their entire story. I wonder if it would change the way we interact with one another, to be privy to the battles someone else was up against. I’m here to share my story.  We may never meet, but I hope this will be like good friends getting together over a cup of coffee. I hope you’ll grant me audience long enough to share my brokenness, my wholeness and the glory of God.

Sarah StonierA child-like faith tested

When I was very little I knew entirely too much about the very grown up things of life. I knew my mom didn’t know who my biological father was, that option one was bald and in prison for bank robbery and option two was very tall and had told her to have an abortion. I knew what an abortion was, and that it definitely meant you weren’t wanted. I agonized over these truths, swallowing them down my throat, blurring both options in to one fabricated story and hoping against all odds that one day this tall, bald fictional father would be released from what bound him and come riding in on his white steed to love and cherish me. I would always stare at taller gentleman in the grocery store or at church wondering if this was my father, who had finally come to claim me as his own. My fairy tale never came true, yet through my tears I learned a very beautiful truth, my Father had already come and had already claimed me as his child.

At a very young age I believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and that He promised to be a Father to the fatherless. It was the mercy of God that saved me at such a young age, because He knew I would need Him to walk beside me as I walked through the story He would give me to bear. If having an absent father is a valley, having a present mother prone to terrifying anger was a mountain. At 19 when my mom was diagnosed with severe mental illnesses the patterns of my childhood started to make some sense. But as a frail girl who was all knees and no gumption, it was hard to find sense of anything as your mother beat you with the same hands that would turn the pages of “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” and scream such obscenities at you from the same mouth that sang you “Silent Night”.

We danced a frenzied waltz, one step: love, two steps: anger, and it’s easy to have every trace of trust used up and erased.  Among the postcard memories of my past; I have counted the ceiling tiles of a homeless shelter, I’ve boxed up and changed addresses more than most, and felt the burning shame flood my cheeks as I stood in all those subcultural lines at the welfare offices, soup kitchens and food banks. I held my breath as a Child Services worker investigated bruises and determined if I stayed or if I was taken. I didn’t understand why kids at school filled up the trashcans with their uneaten lunches when my stomach was growling in contempt at its emptiness. Despite a constant barrage of ridicule from more than one new crowd of classmates, I actually enjoyed school. Reading was a favorite of mine, a love instilled in my heart by my mother. It allowed me to escape to different worlds and to dream of new possibilities. Despite it all I was a dreamer at heart; fashioned into this little colt kicking down the door of circumstance, knowing one of these days I would run, and run far. But before I came to that decision of who I would be, I had to decide to be.

The year I turned 13 was a very dark season in my life, my mother married a man who jarred the small sense of self I had created and the un-acceptance I felt from all sides did not draw me to the cross, but to despair. The memory is crystal clear in my mind: walking into the kitchen, beautiful light pouring in the windows, the house completely empty. I opened the kitchen drawer right to the left of the sink, pulled out a long knife with a white bone handle. I stared at it; breathing in the power I felt, believing the lie that I could stop the chaos and turn off the lights, and forget all the pain of all the yesterdays. Then my Father, so very rich in love and mercy, whispered in to the caverns of my soul and deep in to my heart; “What about tomorrow?” I realized my life had been bought with a price, and was not mine to take. I was overwhelmed with a confidence and the grace to know I could keep going and one day everything would be ok, that I would look out upon the horizon of faithfulness and understand the road that led me to such a view.

I surged into my high school years with an assurance of who I was in God’s image and desired the things of God and not the acceptance of man. Yet, though I professed a deep love for my fellow man and a genuine concern for their well-being, I hated my mother and step-father, and though at 18 I tracked down and met my real very tall father, I wanted nothing to do with him. Though I was accepted to the college of my choice there was no way I could afford to go and I was bitter towards a lack of direction. But God met me right where I was and this time I looked straight at the cross and I praised Him for the forgiveness He had given me and chose not to withhold that forgiveness any longer from those who had trespassed against me. I released the hatred from my heart and one day was able to wrap my arms around my mother.  I had filled my Bible with pen marks and He filled my heart with His joy. I let the Lord’s plan take priority in my life and let Him lead me in to the unknown.

I firmly believe that God called me to Johnson University, a small biblical school a couple hundred miles beneath the Mason Dixon Line, in Knoxville, Tennessee. It was a significant move in the handiwork of God as Knoxville would soon be an area I would call home and where God would continue to cultivate my heart for Him.

A brother, a son

Sam's graduation

Stonier celebrates with her older sister and brother Samuel at his high school graduation.

At 19 years old I traveled around the country as a camp counselor sharing with young people the brokenness I had walked through and the beautiful mosaic the Lord had shaped it in to. Letting His light shoot through my transparency I understood what it meant to have my ransomed life used in any way He chose. It was a foundation I would fight to stand on as in the next few weeks after my traveling came to an end, my mother would be committed to a psychiatric ward and then a state mental facility. In the next year my house was torn down into a vacant lot as my mother went back and forth between two states of being. At times I was on the “unacceptable” list and at times she called my phone 10 times a day and I could audibly hear her heart breaking. When I was 21 my mother entered into the darkest of her seasons to date and my sister and I took an unspoken vow to each other; she would take care of Mom and I would take care of Sam, our little brother. God changed my dreams of going to film school, to dreams of seeing my little brother graduate high school.

God transformed a love of self-security to an overwhelming love for Sam, and I accepted the responsibility given to me as guardian. I remember my prayers vividly from the day a Christian foster camp in Chattanooga would call me to say whether or not they would accept Sam.  I called out for my Father, and He answered; and Samuel was accepted as a resident at Bethel Bible Village. And each Friday afternoon drive to Chattanooga was spent in peace and joy as I marveled at how the Lord gave me the strength daily to follow out His greatest commandments. The Lord constantly provided for me through members of my local church, mentors at Samuel’s school, and a job promotion. God provided partners in Samuel’s continued path of life when he moved back Knoxville after his high school graduation. Those partners, who despite having been a newly married couple, came along either side of me to selflessly shoulder my beautiful burden of grace; and like Atlas without the world on his shoulders, I felt the freedom to conquer that world and pursue my dreams, now only for my Fathers glory.

meet and greet with Sarah Stonier

Stonier at a meet and greet, has been able to accomplish much against great odds. She attributes this to the grace and mercy of God.

Sweet providence

I see the lead of my Fathers love in every moment. So, at 24, walking out on to the Miss Tennessee stage as Miss Walking Tall (a title I had pursued and won that February) with the opportunity to become Miss America, it was not an earthly crown I was running for, it was a cross I was pointing to. I completed the competition in the Top Ten, with the additional accolades of being a Tennessee Miracle Maker, a Lifestyle and Fitness Winner, and Miss Congeniality. What abundant favor from the Lord, what an avenue to proclaim His goodness!

I hope during those moments, and every day that follows after, that people will be able to read my story just with a passing glance on the street. I hope they can see it in the joy in my eyes, the peace in my smiles and the enduring compassion I try to give this world. I pray that the Gospel is written on all of my features and people can instantly know the depths of the journey God has written for me and carried me through. It is a journey I would not exchange for anyone else’s; for without the blackest of evenings I couldn’t praise the rising of the sun, without the deep shadows, I would not love the light.  The Light, of whom there is no shadow of turning, a God whose compassion is so great, a Father whose faithfulness never fails, and who pours out upon me, His sovereign grace.




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