All the things that had to come to pass for this project to come to fruition make its existence highly improbable. The fact that it does exist is testimony of how God never gives up on us.
First let’s start with the fact that my arrival in life wasn’t exactly planned. I think it’s safe to say that with the 3 different forms of contraception that my folks were using and the fact that my mother was almost 40 years old, I beat the odds. Never mind that I have had so many close calls throughout my life, it’s a miracle I am alive today. There is no rational explanation of how I survived some of these events that should have meant certain death, yet I didn’t sustain so much as a scratch.
Second, my brother, John and I co-authored the books in The Last Rose series. You may ask, so what? Sibling co-writers may not seem unusual except for the fact that we’re talking about two siblings that couldn’t stand to breathe the same air for almost 20 years. It was only because of very different hardships in each of our lives during the same time period that we came together to form a friendship and establish the brother/sister bond when John was 29 and I was 19.
Not enough obstacles? What if I told you I was a self-proclaimed agnostic until I was in my thirties? Ah ha. The plot thickens, right? I am not proud of it, but it’s true. I had nothing but contempt for Christians. I found them to be feeble-minded and weak-willed. They couldn’t think for themselves. They blindly submitted to a fantasy that was based on some book. Oh, I was far too intelligent to believe in something that couldn’t be proven scientifically. I was much too intellectually advanced to fall for something I couldn’t see or touch. I didn’t even give God enough credence to hate Him. I simply said there was no proof He was real. Either way, I didn’t care. I lived my life as if He didn’t exist.
I was raised as a believer but at the age of 15, I turned my back on God. What I deserved was to be cast aside by Him and left to suffer the consequences. Forever. But that’s not my story. God pursued me relentlessly and through a series of extremely unlikely events, I found myself drawn back to God in my early 30’s. He got my attention, convinced me He was indeed real and I came to believe in God again. If you would have asked me back then if I was saved, I would have said yes. And I honestly thought I was, but I was wrong. How do I know? Because once I was truly reborn, it was an unmistakable transformation from the inside out.
The Winds of Change Begin to Sing
The catalyst for this change was in 2010, when my brother, John, and his wife visited for summer vacation. He brought some CD’s he thought I would enjoy. He asked me to listen to them and let him know what I thought. It was all contemporary Christian music, which I did listen to after he went back home. Some I liked, some I did not care for. There was one band, Kutless, that I enjoyed the most. But after listening to them a few times, the CD’s were set aside and forgotten.
Fast forward a year to September 2011. My boss gave me permission to listen to music on my computer at work (with earphones of course), through Pandora. In case you aren’t familiar with Pandora, it uses the information based on which selections you give a thumb’s up (you like the song) to determine other songs and artists you might like based on the attributes of the song and artist you “liked”. I was working with my earphones in and I noticed I was extremely agitated and angry. Of course, there was no reason for me to feel this way. I racked my brain to figure out what had triggered me, but couldn’t figure it out. The same thing happened the next day and the next. Finally, I realized it was the music I was listening to. It was dark and the lyrics were very depressive and mentally it had put me in a place of negativity and anger.
I switched my Pandora station to one of upbeat, pop music. The anger issue went away immediately. Pandora started taking my feedback (thumbs up or thumbs down) and began tossing in some random songs. One day while working and listening to Pandora, something I hadn’t heard before started playing. I clicked over to see the playlist to find out who I was listening to and I saw the name of the artist: Kutless. My mouth fell open as I stared at the screen wondering how in the world Pandora had determined what I was listening before warranted putting Kutless into the mix. Nothing I found provided and explanation. Of course, now I know (pointing to the sky). Anyway, I liked the song so I gave it a thumb’s up. Pandora took that and eventually other contemporary Christian songs found their way into my music playlist. By end of the following week, half of what Pandora selected for me was Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). By the end of the month it was all I was listening to.
It makes perfect sense that God would use music to communicate with me. Music had been a passion going back as far as I can recall. So yes, there was really no better way to speak to me. There I was, listening to song after song about forgiveness, redemption, God’s love, freedom from the past, slate being wiped clean and they worked on me day after day after day. Little by little I was being broken.
As I was being broken, I was changing and becoming someone different. My new feelings were so perfectly expressed through these songs so I sought out more and more CCM artists and songs. I began reading my Bible and I understood it for the first time in my life. I couldn’t consume the Gospel fast enough. I was so hungry for a true relationship with the Lord. Even though I knew who He was and what He had done, I had never made a real, personal connection with Him. I considered myself a Christian. I prayed and believed but apparently, I had not taken that crucial next step.
How could my soul be won by listening to music? It’s simple, really. When I listened to these songs, I was intently focused on God. It was a deliberate and passionate focus on God’s love, the price Jesus paid for me and how terribly unworthy I was. My mind was filled with musical testimony of God’s love and with that I began to change inside. I was joyful for the first time in my life.
For months, I had that “off” feeling but at the time I didn’t think much of it. Looking back of course, it makes perfect sense. In my mind, I see Jesus’ presence on my doorstep marking the beginning of the surreal feelings I experienced. I imagine Him stepping up onto the porch the day that Kutless song played on Pandora. I think I had only given Him access to the front yard before that and I can’t even tell you how much I regret that. But as I started focusing on Him, He remained on the stoop, you know – patiently waiting for me to open the door. His holiness in such close proximity was enough to make everything feel different than it ever did before. I can’t tell you the date but I can remember how one day I felt like me and how gradually I started feeling like something was up. It took some time, but thankfully, the Lord is patient. I’m so glad He never gave up on me because one day the door opened and He stepped inside and BAM! Cheryl was a completely different person. My perspective on absolutely everything changed. I saw it all through new eyes. Things I used to enjoy and loved were repulsive to me. Things I had never dreamed I would do, think or feel became attractive and enjoyable. Then came the realization that I was truly free from the guilt, shame and poison of my past. I could shake off those chains and free myself because I was forgiven. My debt had been paid. I owed nothing. Wow.
It was New Year’s Day 2012 and I was visiting friends in Austin with my husband. That morning I kept seeing my mother’s church flash across my mind. I saw the building and the banner on the side of the building. I had driven by Fielder Church in Arlington for years and I knew my mother went there but I never gave it a second thought. But that day the images were persistent. At one point, I finally said out loud, “Okay, I get it. You want me to go to that church.” And then the images stopped coming. It was as if God felt satisfied that I heard Him. I went to Fielder Church the following Sunday and attended the contemporary service. It has been 5 years now and I rarely miss a Sunday. It’s not because I feel obligated. It’s because I found my happy place where I am with like-minded people who love God and are unashamed. People who lift their arms in the air and weep openly - they don’t care what other people think. These are the same people I once looked at with contempt when I was in rebellion. Now I am one of them.
I share that with you to say this. When I write about people who feel so far removed from God that they think He could never, ever love them, I am writing from experience. With all the hateful rhetoric I used to spew, God still loved me and still pursued me. He was tireless and relentless and He never gave up on me, even when I was most undeserving.
All the books in the series are meant to glorify God, reveal His goodness and His faithfulness. The story is meant to reach into the mind and heart of the reader and resonate. It is meant to be a testimony as well as entertainment and here is why. What if by reading this story, a seed is planted that will someday take root? What if one soul that would otherwise be lost finds hope to cling to here and starts focusing on God? God will do the rest. But what if we can be part of that in some small way? My brother and I agree that this book was never about the people writing it - it’s all about the person reading it. It’s our offering. It’s our attempt to be His hands and feet here on earth.
The Birth of The Last Rose
I started by giving you an idea of how unlikely this series of books could even exist, right? Think about all the things God orchestrated in order to position us perfectly for this project. Let me tell you how it started.
A few years ago, John started writing a story. He approached me in July 2014, asking me to proofread it, tidy up any errors and give him some feedback. I did as he asked and the following summer when he came for his annual visit, I handed it to him. I told him quite honestly, I didn’t think it was in line with what he was hoping to accomplish, based on information he had shared with me. He asked me if I would be willing to help and I said I would. But then he took it a step further and asked me to write it with him. A collaboration? That was a huge leap of faith on his part. I was flattered but I wanted to be sure that was really what he wanted. He assured me he did. We scrapped the original story and started fresh in August 2015. By May 2016, the book was complete. John had a seed, I had some dirt and God brought the rain and this story wrote itself.
I hope our books make you laugh, cry, gasp, feel anxious, feel excited, think and fall in love with the people who live on the pages. I hope you read the last page of each book and want more. Most of all, I hope you are blessed in some way by reading the story of The Last Rose, because that is its purpose. It doesn’t have to change your life or save your soul. Perhaps you are already a Christian and it simply takes you away to a place where you draw closer to God as you witness Him working in the lives of the characters. I never felt closer to God than I did when I was writing, because I was all about His business. I was immersed in His perfect love. I’m sure John would agree it was the same for him.