The Genesis of #HowardTime
I am Avenlea and my husband is Stephen, and together we are #HowardTime. We are imperfect people brought together by the perfect love and grace of Jesus Christ. We are different, loyal, real, and relentless. We are just your friendly neighborhood weirdos trying to raise one awesome human named Violet. Read about our story and what our banner is over our household for 2020.
Bridgewater College. A football player and a softball player saw each other and they knew they would spend the rest of their lives together---this is utterly hilarious if you knew us in college, and if you did know us back then, come meet us again, we’ve grown up! The whole football player and softball player thing is true, but knowing that we’d spend the rest of our lives together was a joke. We were young, dumb, and stubborn. Just keep reading.
If Stephen were telling this story he would tell you that he saw me on freshman move-in day as he and his football buddies walked by my dorm. He would say that he turned to his friend, pointed at me, and said, “Hey y'all, I am going to marry that girl right there.” I hope you read that in his Nelson County accent for those of you that know him. He would leave out the part that he never actually talked to me until a year later. He wouldn’t mention how I endured hundreds of awkward waves and weird “Heys'' as we would pass by each other until we actually had our first conversation. Despite the painfully awkward interactions, I remember telling my best friend and roommate that I kind of liked his weirdness, and deep down, I really wanted to get to know him. But the thing is, Stephen’s not telling this story, I am, so let’s get on with it.
That first conversation wasn’t any better. Bless his heart, Stephen tried. It was a fall day where the softball players and defensive football players were in the Bridgewater College weight room getting their daily lifts in. I never really understood why they scheduled us together, but that’s besides the point because I know God did that on purpose *eye roll*. Myself and the other pitchers were doing our workouts trying to get done as fast as we could, but of course the big burly football guys were taking up all the room and all the equipment. I was impatiently waiting on a bench when I heard Stephen’s first attempt to get my attention. He was talking to his friend Chris and pointing at my feet. He says in an abnormally loud voice, “Yeah Chris, you need to stop wearing those white socks and get real athletic socks like the black ones Aven is wearing.” All three of us slowly looked down at my socks and the most awkward silence ensued. I responded with the first thing that came to my mind, “Yeah, I like black socks.” FACEPALM. Ugh! I like black socks? Come on Aven! Chris looked at me and then back at Stephen and thankfully made another joke to free us both from the most uncomfortable first interaction in human history.
Fast forward to a few months later. We kept seeing each other out and around campus and conversations came easy and I loved talking to him. We talked about sports, music, working out, Jesus, our dreams; we could talk for hours. I thank God we recovered from his first attempt of a pick up line and my awful response (still cringing.) Stephen grew up in the church and had a solid foundation of who Jesus was and had a steadfast commitment to walk with Him. I didn’t grow up in the church and a lot of my walk was pieced together by studying the bible, Googling everything, and attending small groups in high school. I felt so dumb talking about God because there were things I didn’t know, but Stephen never made me feel inadequate. Because of this, for the first time in a long time, I felt like God was really in my heart. We had such a connection and organically wanted to be better people for each other. So we became friends, best friends. We had a lot in common. Neither of us fit in your stereotypical boxes and we liked that. We both had a different way of viewing life and a common desire to accomplish goals. Both of us loved playing our sports and cherished the life lessons we gleaned from them. We both had a lot of baggage though. A LOT. Neither of us were in a position to date one another but we couldn’t stop having a relationship. At the time, I was dealing with a lot of abuse from past relationships, partying, and trying to heal myself, and he was dealing with the same things plus his dad being diagnosed with cancer. The more our affection grew for one another the more angry we got because we both knew we couldn’t help each other at the time. That anger would come out and we would say things and do things to purposely hurt each other. I was mad because I wanted to be with him, but also wanted to self medicate without a commitment and he was mad at me because I didn’t have in me what he needed. He was angry with God because his dad was suffering and wanted me to take God’s place, but we all know that ends in disaster. As the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. And hurt is what we were both very good at.
It went on like this for several months. We’d use each other and hate each other and the cycle continued weekly. We refused to be together, but God has quite the sense of humor and didn’t care about our stubbornness (you always win God, I know.) Stephen’s dad got really sick and he passed away that January of Stephen’s junior year and it all spiraled out of control from there. I have never lost a parent before so I was clueless as to how to help him through this and let’s not forget that I was not even capable of comforting someone when I couldn’t even comfort myself at this time. The partying continued and it intensified for us both. Stephen was drinking to forget everything and I was just drinking to become someone I wasn’t. We both entered very dark, isolated, and seperate places.
By the grace of God, Stephen and I are together and we have purpose. A few months after Stephen’s dad passed, Stephen asked me if I wanted to do this relationship thing for real. Again, it was awkward, weird, and I was sweating. We both knew it was going to be a tough journey of forgiveness, healing, and restoration, but we were going to commit and grind it out, whatever was to come; because that is the type of people God made us to be. The beautiful thing about God is that he teaches you and helps you navigate life the way it’s supposed to be. He takes your hurt and transforms it into a platform for his glory. He provides the right people at the right time and without Godly community this could’ve gone very differently. I needed to solidify my identity and find my value again. I didn’t know what love was. I didn’t know what receiving love looked like, but God showed up and showed out when I needed him the most. He sent spiritual sisters in my life and established such life giving friendships for me that revived my soul. Stephen needed guidance and accountability from the godly men in his life, and once again, God provided. Was it perfect after we decided to get serious about one another? Absolutely not! I could go on and on about some of the absolutely ridiculous things that went on between us (I may or may not have punched him once or twice) but the bottom line is: without God’s grace we would be nothing. We had to work hard for our relationship and grind it out each and every day. We had to rewire our hearts, minds, and bodies and beat them into submission in order to bring God glory. We didn’t want the world to use us anymore, we wanted to be used by God.
Ten years together, five years married, and I would not change a thing about our story. Looking back there are some embarrassing moments and some awful decisions were made but like I said, God knew and he continued to shower us with grace upon grace. God held up a mirror between our hearts and forced us to examine ourselves in order to love one another. God continually reminded us that our willingness to grind in our athletics was the same grind he wanted us to have when loving Him and each other. We had to accept the fact that our relationship was something we were going to have to fight for. We had to be willing to experience His forgiveness, fulfilling love, and recognize the fight to spread the gospel through our story. Our story has been on my heart this year which brings me to our #HowardTime banner of the year.
Our 2020 banner is, “By His Grace, We Grind.” Our focal scripture behind this is 1 Corinthians 15:10 and it states,
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
It wasn’t by mistake that two hard working athletes, with an awful track record, met in a weight room. Just like in this verse, it wasn’t by mistake that Paul was called to spread the gospel despite his past (not to mention what track record he had.) That same grace and grind that helped propel and excel us in our sports, is the same grace and grind that helps us love each other and live for God today. We recognize that our story is a billboard for the grace that God has given us both and we will never forget it. This grace reminds us that we are not worthy (clearly from the story above) but God still has called us and charged us to share the gospel and make disciples that follow him. God’s grace is relentless and while we were yet sinners, he died for us. Despite our sins, despite our past, despite our brokenness, God’s love is perfect and he gives it freely. Stephen and I are weirdly unique and yes, we fail, but God’s grace doesn’t. He designed us to be the salt and light and even though the world may have disqualified us, God doesn’t. Grace FORGIVES. Grace FILLS. Grace FIGHTS. By His grace, we grind.
This VLOG is about a very personal and emotional diagnosis that I went through and I am still dealing with daily, involving my youngest child. I felt it was important to share my story with you because even though the saga continues with my baby boy I have faith that all will be well with him, soon. If this vlog encourages just one person then I have done my job! I hope you enjoy.
February 27th, 2020. A week or so before all of the chaos of the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic, Gabe and I found out we were expecting another beautiful little girl (name yet to be announced). Of course, like any parents, we were excited and expected her to be healthy, just like her big sister. But then our world got turned upside down when we heard there was something abnormal imaged on her scan. A day after the exam, I had to go to a prenatal diagnosis center to have a more detailed scan and for some genetic testing for her--Gabe and myself. This was new territory for us. Never had I expected we would have to be going through all of this. All of my family had healthy babies; and Gabe’s side all had healthy (big) babies too. So why would we ever have a child that could possibly have special needs? It just did not make sense to me. AT ALL.
The first information and concern we had received about her was that she had a protruding belly. Yes, it’s normal for babies to have chubby bellies but not at 20 weeks gestation. Usually at 20 weeks babies are fairly thin, just skin and bone really. Then once I went to the diagnosis center, they told me her entire body was actually covered with more tissue than usual. So she looked a lot bigger than she should, which causes concern because there was obviously something going on with her. Not to mention, I had a lot of extra amniotic fluid (the fluid inside the uterus that protects the baby) which made me look a lot further along than I actually was, causing a risk of preterm labor. Right after we got this news, of course, I went home and googled everything possible this could be and I found some very grim possibilities which broke me down. Bad….but turns out it wasn’t any of these specific diagnoses but there are still SO MANY UNKNOWNS. Still today.
Fast forward to now April 3rd 2020, in the middle of quarantine, (which honestly I have not been too focused on really) I have been admitted to the hospital (UVA) on the account of having pretty consistent contractions. My fluid is severely high and I am 1 1/2 cm dilated at only 25 weeks. All of that adds up to a possibility of me going into preterm labor. This is not good because our baby is still very tiny and not fully developed yet. So it puts her at risk for a lot of complications and on top of that we still have no idea what her specific condition is. So initially we were told we would have to stay here for 24 hours for monitoring, which would be the first time I was gone from our first born, Amara, overnight. I know she’s in good hands with her grandparents but it broke my heart that I would not get to cuddle my baby tonight. Once we got there they checked my cervix again and I had dilated to a little over 2cm within the hour! They gave me a shot to slow it down and continued to monitor me all day, not to mention I had to get my fluid drained by a tiny needle in my belly in the midst of all of this. All of this happening and guess what…we still do not have any concrete answers to why. Why is this happening? Why is she not healthy? Why is this pregnancy completely different than my first? I already had a healthy baby girl, shouldn’t this one be healthy too? All of these questions lead me to one place. Prayer and intimate times with the Lord.
I’ll admit, I’m not the perfect Christian who takes situations like this easily to God and is like “okay God have your way.” My goal is to become like Job. But let’s be honest, I’ve got a lot of work to do. (I suggest reading Job to get what I’m talking about. Basically he was a righteous man and God allowed the devil to plague him and he still praised God and never blamed Him once for it…don’t worry it has a good ending.) But anyways, I’m more like, “Okay God…ummm wait, why, what are you doing? Where are you going with this? Don’t touch that area of my life! What’s the big idea here!?” So when I say I’ve been having intimate times with God, they are more like confrontational meetings. And if any of you know me, I don’t really do confrontation. To be honest, I was angry at God. Because out of all the things I cherish in my life, one of the number one roles is being a mother. Being able to nurture, protect, and raise my sweet babes is one of the best gifts I have ever received. And for that to be taken out of my control threw me off a bit. I didn’t realize I had been idolizing our good health and prosperity these past couple of years. I honestly hadn’t gone through anything remotely this hard in years. So why now? My husband, a mighty man of God, one of his favorite scriptures is James 1:2-4 “Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.”
This is a lovely scripture but when you’re in the thick of it, it is quite hard to consider it “great joy”.
Though it is hard, God says in his word that he will never leave me or forsake me; (Deuteronomy 31:6) and that all things work together for the GOOD of those who LOVE God (Romans 8:28). I find myself leaning on this promise way more because I honestly don’t have anything else. And even though I do not know the outcome, God does. And I have to trust that he will carry my family through these unprecedented times. So I am LEARNING to praise him in the middle of the storm. Praising him that I have the opportunity to carry life within me and to pray over our sweet girls. A good friend told me I am a “strong, strong mama.” I took the compliment even though I don’t feel strong, I know the joy of the Lord is my strength because it says so in his word (Nehemiah 8:10). So I need not to fear. The world can be quite scary and unpredictable. I am learning this. In all my short 25 years of life this is the most difficult time thus far with COVID-19, being quarantined, and the mystery diagnosis of our baby. I have to constantly choose not to blame God, BUT to praise Him in the midst of this. I know he loves me and is a good Father that cares for us (Isaiah 41:10). So I encourage everyone to take this time to be super intentional about reading their bibles and getting to know who Jesus is. It is honestly the only hope we can find in our world at this very moment. I believe these times are purposeful and God is doing something in our entire nation.
“But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, and the one who lifts up my head. I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain.”
I sit on the balcony watching the ocean come into the shore and go back out again. It's like therapy to my soul. The sound brings peace and the sight brings rest. I don't have a care in the world. I hear His voice and the rhythm heals my anxious heart. I'm close to Him here. A mission trip to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina that I wasn't even looking forward to became something that healed me, reset me, gave me room to breathe. I don't like being removed from my routine. It's difficult for me. Causes some nerves and fear. But this time, as I was removed from my "normal," I was able to see more clearly. God gives me room to breathe. He invites me into it. He beckons me into it. He never meant for me to be suffocated by religion, beaten up by striving, held back by perfectionism, and distracted by worry. I struggle to breathe sometimes.I get caught up in what's going on around me, more than keeping my eyes fixed on the one Who is for me.
My word for this year is "Listen." My inspiration was from the verse John 10:27 which says, "My own sheep will hear my voice and I know each one, and they will follow me." As I read this verse, I get the picture of a child crawling into Daddy's lap and snuggling into His chest and listening to His heartbeat.
With the imprinted image of the ocean waves coming in and going out in my mind and soul, I am now on the way home from this sweet, refreshing trip. Sitting in the car, all of a sudden, I become keenly aware that I'm going home to a pandemic. Blame it on the YouTube videos, the notifications on my phone, or the podcasts we listened to, I started to shift my focus. The image in my mind of the ocean waves turned now to COVID-19, COVID-19, and COVID-19 again.
The rhythms of the ocean waves never abandoned me. I abandoned them.
And isn't this true in our relationship with God? He never leaves us. But we leave Him. We stop reading our word. We stop praying. Our mind is more fixated on our worry than our worship. We move from anchored in peace to thrown about by the storms of life.
I come back to Harrisonburg to adjust everything we do to being online. I'm now having to record video content (very uncomfortable for me, by the way) and somehow lead every one of the students in our mission and vision. All the while, I'm not even really sure I'm okay.
There's a story in Luke 10:38-41 "As Jesus and the disciples continued on their journey, they came to a village where a woman welcomed Jesus into her home. Her name was Martha and she had a sister named Mary. Mary sat down attentively before the Master, absorbing every revelation he shared. But Martha became exasperated by finishing the numerous household chores in preparation for her guests, so she interrupted Jesus and said, 'Lord, don't you think it's unfair that my sister left me to do all the work by myself? You should tell her to get up and help me.' The Lord answered her, 'Martha, my beloved Martha. Why are you upset and troubled, pulled away by all these many distractions? Are they really that important? Mary has discovered the one thing most important by choosing to sit at my feet. She is undistracted, and I won't take this privilege from her.'" (TPT)
This story reminds me of my word for this year. Listen. Mary was so attentive to the voice of God that she tuned out all other voices other than his. Much like a child crawled into Daddy's lap, snuggling into His chest and listening to His heartbeat.
I often allow myself to become suffocated by the pressures I put on myself to be the perfect leader. As the pressures build up I become distracted by my to-do list; and my attention moves from my Savior to the demands of the day. As the weight of my demands and pressures weigh heavier on me, my chest gets tight and anxiety is at an all time high. I feel like I have become dissolved into the waterfall of emotions that have come upon me as my focus shifted from being fixated on my Savior.
I left His lap.
When I realize my heart is much too heavy, I remember I was supposed to stay connected to His.
Verse 40 says that Martha interrupted Jesus. She interrupted him to bring her own complaint. We do this too. We interrupt the voice of Jesus to mention the worries that are on our minds. He wants to speak, but we're already talking. He wanted the rhythms of His voice from the ocean never to leave my soul. But I turned my attention to the coronavirus. He wants to speak. Will I listen?
This morning I woke up and I breathed deep. He's with me. He never left. The rhythms came back as I took a moment to remember. LISTEN. Don't leave. Stay close. The ocean waves come in. The ocean waves go out. I see it again. The rhythms of His voice heal my anxious heart. It's a journey, of this I am sure. We'll never get it perfect. But today is one step closer than yesterday. He will have my attention. I'll stay in His lap. He gives me room to breathe