Little Black Sheep by Ashley Cleveland - Read Online
Little Black Sheep
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“This is the story of the groundwork that paved the way to my faith. It is not an easy story to tell….” This powerful memoir from Grammy Award winner Ashley Cleveland reminds us that even in the lowest times of our lives, beauty can shine through.  As a young woman from a deeply flawed family, Ashley had little hope she would amount to anything. If there was trouble, near or far, she found it. Yet, in her destructive days of drugs, alcohol, and sex, she encountered a forgiving God who was relentlessly faithful. Change did not come quickly. The brokenness did not disappear. But little by little, Ashley allowed God to heal her, to transform her desires, to bring courage to others through her journey. Little by little, she saw that it was her brokenness itself that God wanted to use. This beautifully told story will take you from the back rooms of Nashville to the churches of the San Francisco Bay area to a tender new life where one woman discovers that God can work in broken places. 
Published: David C Cook on
ISBN: 9780781410878
List price: $17.99
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Little Black Sheep - Ashley Cleveland

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Rubin’s Vase and the God-Shaped Hole

I was recently providing music at a conference where one of the speakers, a noted professor of theology, remarked that we are in the Experiential Age of the Christian faith, an age that is defined by a professed personal relationship with Christ. Then she threw up her hands and said: What does that mean? Initially I thought she was distinctly in the wrong line of work, but then I found it to be a provocative question and thought: Yes, what does it mean?

I reflected on the idea of the God-shaped hole, the empty space in us that longs for the Lord and can only be satisfied with His Spirit. You could say that this concept is too small, that God wants to inhabit our whole being, not just our Sunday-morning best. But I think of it as negative space that, like Rubin’s vase, reveals an entirely new subject. The God-shaped hole in me was the portal of my longing to be named, to be claimed, and to be loved. I could not find satisfaction for my desire anywhere else in this world. I did, however, give it my best shot. But my solutions led me to alcoholism, drug addiction, lying, cheating, stealing, promiscuity, and really bad moods. I spent years heaping shame upon shame.

Today my knowledge of Jesus is an abiding presence that is marked, often, by an overwhelming experience of the love and sense of place that I yearned for. Here I find acceptance and welcome, and over time, I have been changed. I see the evidence of transformation most vividly in my desire to love and serve others. I have been exclusively devoted to all manner of self-interest, self-will, and selfish living for the better part of my life, so the emergence of this outward gaze and concern—both at home and at large—is truly supernatural. Of course, I am not completely over myself, not by a long shot, so I expected to see the changes in my life spelled out in victorious living and attributes. Or as Jim Carrey’s Grinch would say, I expected to be "joyful and triumphant." But that is not what happened.

The path I have taken is the low road of the gospel where I live as a broken person among the broken and where repeated failures have provided the Ebenezer stones for the things that I most cherish. I assumed that in coming to faith, my cracks and splits would be sewn together again in a seamless, saint-like fabric, but such is not the case. Much like the Velveteen Rabbit, I am a series of threadbare patches, irregular stitches with the stuffing poking out, and one button eye displaced and downcast.

I have serious issues with this.

I have despised my brokenness and cry out to God regularly and petulantly, particularly after a public display of contempt, shame, greed, gluttony, grandiosity, or insensitivity: Would it be such a big deal to relieve me of some of this? Could You make me just a little less broken?

The answer that I perceive is always the same: No. More broken.

Over time I have come to understand that out of this ruined place comes every valuable thing that I have to give away. Here I see the foolishness of thinking that I should be in charge of anything, including, and perhaps most notably, myself. Here my notion of goodness is off the table, and I can only cling to Christ. And in the clinging I become teachable; I gain compassion and empathy; I am forgiven; I am free.

This is the story of the groundwork that paved the way to my faith. It is not an easy story to tell, but I have made my peace, and I do not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.² Or, as the apostle Paul puts it: By the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain (1 Cor. 15:10). To that I would add: I am what I am and most of the time I would not be otherwise.

Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake

But to the depth he goes as the water breaks

And for every shipwreck

There’s a pearl he takes

Chained to the past

Chained to the fear

Chains on the floor

Broken for years

Freedom is calling me

And my heart races

I feel it in the broken places³

Chapter 1

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Seven Arts and Sorrow


I wonder if my mother had any clue that she was marrying a man who had little or no interest in her substance, a man whose desire for her was fully satisfied in the superficial gloss of her Seven Arts skills. The Seven Arts, claiming that To be poised, lovely, and well-groomed is the inherent right of every woman, was a local finishing school that offered a social navigation compass in manners and feminine wiles. My mother taught classes with such titles as Gracious Physical Comportment, Personality Development, Basic Rules for a Pleasant Speaking Voice, Hair, Make-up, and Wardrobe and Figure Control to newly minted young society women at Rich’s Department Store in Knoxville, Tennessee—the city where I was born.

My mother is not a classic beauty. She complains of small eyes, skimpy lashes, and too much fullness in her face. These days she says that when she smiles, her eyes disappear and she looks like a boiled egg. She has thick wavy hair, a full mouth, a fine figure, and great legs. But her secret weapon, developed over a long history in fashion and modeling, is an enviable understanding of how to put herself together so that her liabilities retreat into the shadow of her assets. My husband, Kenny, likes to say that when he met my mother for the first time, he realized he’d hit the jackpot by marrying into a family where the women continue to bloom well into their twilight. Now approaching eighty, she was and is quite a package.

I wonder if my father ever considered the utter futility of a dual, duplicitous lifestyle. He was a brilliant, complicated man, the product of a Southern matriarchal family with a domineering mother and a silent specter of a father. He escaped the small-town confines of Sweetwater, Tennessee, and earned a degree in Architecture at Yale and then a second degree in Interior Design at the University of Tennessee. He served as a second lieutenant in World War II, an event that he spoke little about except to say that he was in Patton’s army. He was handsome, accomplished, charming—and gay. He met my mother in church, found her to be his equal in style and form, and married her, dreaming, I’m sure, of all the gracious living and fabulous parties that awaited them. He was not looking for intimacy with my mother; he was a man who viewed women as accessories or lapel pins: connected at the surface but meant only for display. When he fell for my mother, it was her presentation skills that won his heart. But he reserved the most honest, accessible part of himself for a secret male world fueled by good gin, where sex, glamour, gossip, and luxury fabrics were what mattered most.

Fortunately for my sister Windsor and me, my father’s view of the perfect marriage included children, and we unwittingly came tumbling, two years apart, into a well-designed household that had already begun to reek of alcohol and silence. My parents were highly visual and reverentially partial to physical and material beauty, which resulted in two pairs of fiercely critical eyes shining brightly in equal parts devotion and expectation on us. We were dressed to match, and I’m sure that plans for our debuts into society were hatching while we were still toddlers. We felt the weight of their attentions and also a darker calling, because though we knew nothing of the psychology of family systems, those dynamics were firmly in place, and we stepped neatly into our roles. Windsor was as good as gold in pursuit of their approval and became the family hero. I took the low road reserved for the scapegoat and provided plenty of ongoing distraction from the issues at hand by acting out our collective pain and dysfunction.

I have a friend who describes her family as … all alcoholics except my brother, who’s a Baptist. Mine was a similar drinking dynasty with legendary stories, such as the Halloween when one relative came to the door drunk and naked to greet the trick-or-treaters. She eventually left the candy bowl to her husband and retired to the bedroom where she would call for him repeatedly to come and attend to her. When he failed to answer, she set the house on fire.

My parents were both alcoholics; both were extraordinarily functional for the better part of their drinking careers. I understood the importance of the cocktail hour at an early age, and I have a snapshot memory of tasting my mother’s Budweiser as she sat at her dressing table, preparing—in more ways than one—to go out for the evening.

I know that faith and the Presbyterian Church were a central part of our lives, but I have only the dimmest recollection of these things in my early childhood. In the South, nearly everyone attends church because it is an indication of good breeding and social standing. A genuine encounter and subsequent relationship with Jesus is not only unnecessary, but it is often considered overwrought and even a bit common. My mother had experienced that very genuine encounter as a child, though, and carried her faith into adulthood, passing it on to us in such a way that it never occurred to me to doubt the gospel, and I was particularly drawn to the Baby Jesus cradled in the crèche. But I viewed God the Father as a slightly larger and more impersonal version of my parents, carrying a measuring stick that quickly turned into a rod of reproof. The idea of an Abba who loved me and had plans of a future and a hope for me was utterly alien, and I assumed that if He knew my name at all, it was because He had heard that my behavior was so bad my mother had resorted to having me cut my own switches.

Inevitably, my parents’ marriage collapsed. My mother made a valiant effort to keep it alive by insisting on marriage counseling, but she was urging my father to places he had no intention of going, and although he was physically present for the sessions, he refused to participate or even to speak. This pattern continued nearly to the end of his life; he had still waters running deep, but he wasn’t able to access them and confined himself to the shallows that swirled around him like party chatter and never rose above his ankles.

They divorced when I was in kindergarten; their final argument was precipitated by some mischief I had gotten into early one morning. I had collected my mother’s liquid makeup and lotions and mixed them all together into a pinky-beige mess. My father got up and came into the spare bathroom where I was occupied to take a shower but didn’t notice the telltale bowl or empty containers, because I had hidden them behind a large box of laundry detergent. My mother discovered it all fairly quickly when she awoke and accused my father of avoidance—a path he regularly took throughout their marriage and a source of tension and resentment for my mother. They fought briefly and my father left, returning only once to pack his belongings.

My mother punished me severely that morning, spanking me and shoving me under my bed to retrieve the caps to the smeared, empty bottles that littered the bathroom. Windsor retreated to the farthest corner of the conflict. She was silent, watchful, and good as gold. After the furor, my mother came to me with a tearful apology, but though I have understood for many years that her grief and rage had little or nothing to do with my part in the whole event, I continue to carry the weight of responsibility for their divorce in the earliest, most fragile images of my childhood. The head is no match for the heart in these formative experiences, and if there was a jumping-off place for me into shame and self-destruction, this was it.

My mother went to work as a traveling saleswoman in the fashion industry and brought in a succession of caregivers, most of them African-American. Some of these women were loving and nurturing to me, and in many ways, they became my other mothers. I particularly loved a handsome woman named Eva who worked for my grandparents, and once in a while, she would take Windsor and me home with her to spend the weekend. We would help her husband, George, in his garden, play with the neighborhood children until after dark, and then collapse in a giant four-poster in Eva’s front bedroom. It was a world away from the trouble and confusion in my own home, and I pestered her often to let us go with her