Recently on my Sabbath day, I read Ashley Cleveland’s memoir, Little Black Sheep. She’s a Grammy Award-winner singer and songwriter, with a throaty voice and the rhythms of black gospel music although she grew up white in the refined, rich, and religious south of the United States where going to church was what nice people did–along with living secret broken lives.
Ashley tells her journey from respectability to grace, with a whole lot of detours in between. When she was a teenager, she decided to follow Jesus, but she kept stepping off the path. Again and again, she gave in to her particular temptations: drugs, sex, alcohol. Again and again, she’d return to God and ask forgiveness. Again and again, God took her back. For years, her life was one endless zig zag. Zig onto the path, zag off the path.
Occasionally I would have a brief period of sobriety. I would begin to feel a tiny spark of hope; I would clean the house, swim laps in my friend Constance’s pool, and start a diet. I would offer a few tentative prayers . I would call my mother, confess everything (very bad idea), and tell her that I was turning a corner, that I could feel it. Then on an ordinary weeknight, I would find that I could not sit still, that my skin prickled and tingled, that I could not bear my own company, and I would be out the door, heading to downtown Petaluma or down the street to the drug dealer’s house.
Along the way, she got pregnant and kept the baby. Again she turned to God, and again she returned to drinking. Again she hit bottom. Then she went to treatment and stayed sober for seven years.
I knew I couldn’t continue as I was and survive, but I didn’t feel relief; I felt beaten. I thought, even then: I don’t think I want to live without a drink. But I did want to try for Becca’s [her daughter's] sake. I wanted to know that I had done everything within my power on her behalf.
…I found an AA meeting before I left Knoxville and at the end of the meeting went forward to receive the silver chip that is also called the Desire Chip , indicating the crossroad to choosing a new way of life.
Usually, that’s where the story ends. Or at least that is where we want the story to end: in glorious victory and triumph as another testimony of God’s loving power, another miracle of God’s great redemption.
But after seven years of freedom, Ashley started to drink again and entered into the long dark abyss once more.
Drinking occupied the bulk of my thoughts. It was the first thing I thought of on waking: “I had two glasses of wine yesterday. Will anyone notice if I have three today?” It was the last thing I thought of at night : “I think I’ll skip it altogether tomorrow, or maybe just one beer … Yes, just one.” In between, my awareness of my thirst lingered on the periphery of the entire day.
…I began to have small encounters with God in my morning devotions. In my efforts to cloak my descent back into my addiction, I would make a show of wholesome activities like prayer and Bible study: five o’clock in the morning., and all is well! I would feel His still, small voice break through my prayers with a simple: “Give Me the drink.”
If I were her friend or a member of her family, this would be the point where I’d give up on Ashley. I’d say, “Look how many times she has screwed up. She takes grace and then she falls away. She’s obviously not serious about putting her life back together. It’s time to shake the dust off our feet and leave her behind.”
But God never gave up on her. God never shut the door. He kept knocking. He kept wooing. He kept waiting.
“…one morning, for no particular reason, I walked into an AA meeting. I hadn’t drunk myself into a stupor the previous night, I hadn’t been back to jail, I don’t remember what prompted me to go, only the ordinariness of the day. Perhaps the recent vacation where my pronounced detachment from my family and desire to be alone with the wine bottle had done it. Perhaps the fact that the liquor-store clerks recognized me now had done it. Perhaps the prayers …
Thirty years of zigging and zagging, and God’s mercy never failed Ashley. This time, she was truly ready to begin the long, slow process of rebuilding her life through the power of the Holy Spirit. And He was there.
I awoke to find my Savior was wooing me with such tenderness and love that I couldn’t resist. I awoke to my marriage and found that my husband was ready to jump in and do the heavy lifting (and letting go) that a union of value requires. I awoke to find my children.
The story of the continuing grace of God in Ashley’s life gives me great hope. First, it gives me hope for myself, specifically for those deep-rooted flaws in my character that continue to send up their shoots trying to strangle my heart. When I need to go back and ask God to forgive me for the millionth time, I sometimes hear the accuser asking me if it’s really worth to keep struggling; how is it possible that He would take me back again? The story of Little Black Sheep demonstrates that indeed all things are possible with God. He never, ever gives up. And He gives enough grace for the day. Like manna, His mercies are new every morning.
Second, it gives me great hope for the other broken, sinful people in my life. God waits for them too. It is not my place to write ‘the end’ on their stories. God asks me to be as patient with them as He is with me. He asks me to be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving others as He has forgiven me. And He gives me the power of His Holy Spirit which is really the only way I can give this supernatural love to others.
What about you?
Where in your life do you need to zag towards God for the millioneth time?
And who do you need to hold out hope for?
“Little Black Sheep” by Ashley Cleveland
“The boy told the shepherd: there’s a fearful storm
So I went out to the field to drive the flocks home
I counted every lamb into the keep
All except for one
That little black sheep
Little black sheep, little black sheep
In the howling wind with no relief
In a cold, cold world nothin’ sounds so sweet
As the voice of the shepherd to a little black sheep
Little black sheep, he ain’t nothin’ but trouble
He’s not worth much and he’ll cost you double
Shepherd says he knows but he won’t sleep
He’s gonna go out and find
That little black sheep
Now the little black sheep was the wandering kind
But the shepherd brought him back every time
Mama says: child, when your pride starts to creep
You best remember we all just
Little black sheep