What I Thought Was Me*
I was born into a middle class, Jewish American family, which would have made me a princess except my father was a florist, not a doctor. We celebrated the traditional Jewish holidays in a superficial way. While I was taught there was a God, I never really knew him.
For the first few years of my life we lived in Fairfax, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles. Practically everyone on the block was friendly, like extended family. I remember walking to school with my best friend, holding hands. My father took my brother and me to his mother’s Orthodox synagogue on the High Holy Days. My mom rarely attended. She didn’t appreciate how the women sat on one side while the men were on the other. I remember apples and honey each year and the rabbi’s blessing on Rosh Hashanah, “May your name be inscribed in the Book of Life!”
We moved when I was around eight to a different section of Los Angeles. Before I had a chance to make friends, something happened that changed my life forever. On the way to the school bus stop, I bent down to pet a neighbor’s dog and the dog bit my face. It took 100 stitches to close the wound. When I returned to school my classmates gave me a new name—”Scarface.” For the next three years I heard Scarface every day—on the school playground and in the neighborhood. After awhile, I believed this must be the truth about me. I became a loner, pushing people away. Long after I stopped hearing the name with my ears, I continued to believe it was who I really was. From then until I turned 27, Scarface shaped and defined me in ways without number.
When my brother died at eighteen from cancer, my parents’ marriage fell apart after thirty-plus years, and I was left with a lot of angry questions. I began searching for answers. From Ayn Rand to Zen, I sought truth through pages and people I thought had already found it. But none of their philosophies filled the empty place in my heart.
Two close friends, also Jewish, had become believers in Jesus. One lent me The Great Divorce, and the other recommended Mere Christianity. Both books by C.S. Lewis spoke to me in some deep places and impressed me very much. But Mere Christianity ignited a question that filled up my heart and mind: How could there be a God in this cold and infinite universe who could love me?
I remember reading the conclusion to Lewis’ argument for Christianity, that you had to believe in the person of God expressed through Jesus, God’s Son. I was so angry I threw the book down and screamed in my heart at the God I didn’t believe in. That very night God answered me. I awoke suddenly. My boyfriend, Michael, had stayed over, and was snoring peacefully beside me. But then, without warning, I was completely filled with a love I had never known. Far beyond mere human emotion, it was without any shadow, so pure and holy I was sure nothing within me could produce such a feeling. At that moment I knew that God was touching me. And then, in an instant, it was over.
The next morning I called my best friend, who was also Jewish, and told her what happened. She assured me that it was something from my deep subconscious. But I knew what touched me that night had come from outside of me. I also realized that if I really wanted truth, I had to accept that God had answered my question by revealing himself to me. I could no longer label myself an atheist or agnostic. There was a God.
That God existed and cared for me was one thing—but Jesus was another. My good friend Ross, who lent me one of the C.S. Lewis books, offered to take me to the Yom Kippur service at Ahavat Zion Messianic Synagogue in Beverly Hills. Barry Budoff was the rabbi. I fasted that day for the first time in many years and spent the morning at the synagogue. I came back for the evening service and to break the fast. Afterwards, Rabbi Barry walked over to talk to me. I was pretty hostile even though God had been dealing with me for several months since that night he touched me. I asked Barry if he had ever seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an old sci-fi movie that portrayed normal people possessed by plant pods from outer space. This was, in fact, my opinion of people who believed in God. They had been taken over by aliens, and had become zombie-like in their religion. Little did I know that Barry was a sci-fi fan. I asked him where he kept his plant pods, and he didn’t drop a beat. He said: “I keep them in my office. Would you like to see?” As Ross and I followed Barry to his office, tears were running down Ross’s cheeks.
In that office, on the night of Yom Kippur in 1984, I took my first very hesitant steps toward Jesus. Later that night I stood on top of Mulholland Drive, overlooking the lights of the San Fernando Valley, and affirmed to the Lord that I really wanted him in my life and desired to know him more.
Michael and I had been going together for two years. We met in a songwriting class and started collaborating. He wrote positive country songs, while I preferred to express my angst in blues and ballads. I was especially attracted to his red hair and freckles. As time went on we both had a deep desire to write songs that would matter. Little did we know then how God would fulfill that dream.
Michael asked me to marry him a month after I became a believer. I accepted hesitantly, realizing Michael was not interested in knowing more about God. But he agreed to go to a pre-marital class at a nearby church, and that’s when things got really tense. I felt guilty that we were not on the same page in what we believed. And I dreaded that without that spiritual unity we would wind up like our parents, separated and divorced. So I finally, tearfully told Michael I couldn’t marry him, that he needed to decide what he believed about Jesus. And if he didn’t believe in Jesus, we could still be friends, but I couldn’t marry him.
Michael warned me we might never get married, that he would not believe in Jesus for my sake. I told him I didn’t want to be with anyone else and I would wait for him. We went to a double feature that night and stuffed ourselves with popcorn. We barely talked and I cried a lot.
True to his word, Michael didn’t do it for me. For two years we struggled with our feelings and my faith, but there came a day when Michael knew God was speaking to him and he opened his heart to the Lord.
When I began this strange and wondrous journey, my faith was tentative at best. My heart had been balled up like a fist for years and I wasn’t about to surrender the tender parts to One I hardly knew—not even the One I acknowledged as Lord.
But God, with a gentle and merciful hand, began to peel away the layers of skin grown over like scabs on the wounds of my heart. He showed me his scars through the Scriptures, and in the lives of his people. I began to understand the depth of love they signified. His love opened my fists and loosened my heart. As I turned to Jesus and allowed him to touch those raw and tender places, I began to heal.
There are wounds that lay open upon our bodies for everyone to see. In the course of time they close up and become scars. They remain as markers in our lives, but they are healed and no longer painful to touch.
Then there are those hurts that no one can see. Often these take longer to heal. Now, like the physical mark I bear from the dog, there are scars in my heart where once there were wounds. Grace has taken pain’s place.
Through Improbable People Ministries, Michael and I have had the privilege of sharing our songs and stories to touch many wounded people in places we could never have imagined. It is our hope that God will continue to use our words and music to “bind up the broken hearted” (Isaiah 61:1) and set the captives free.
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
*Title of one of Sally’s songs.