11) Neola Faith

Long before the concept of The Zone had entered my psyche, my life was being impacted by my Aunt Neola. Aunt Neola, along with her husband George, raised their eight children on a small farm just outside the Nebraska town where I grew up. The 10 of them lived in a small, three-bedroom house with scant furniture. I never knew Aunt Neola to complain. She worked in her garden to grow everything her family ate and served tirelessly at church. Yet, she would find time for prayer and the study of God’s Word.

As a young girl in church on Sunday mornings, I remember being a little embarrassed when her strong alto voice rang out to express her faith to the heavens. Now, that memory makes my heart swell. I understand. My aunt knew genuine joy, and her expression of that joy mattered most to her.

When I was a little older, I remember again being embarrassed as she counseled couples in our high school youth group to place a Bible on the seat between them in the car on dates. I was mortified by how out of touch she seemed to be with contemporary thinking. It wasn’t until I had my own daughters that the revelation of my aunt’s wisdom took hold. In fact, my husband and I took an even more conservative approach by encouraging our own daughters to not date in their teenage years.

But Aunt Neola’s greatest impact on me came at a deep point of both blessing and brokenness:  new motherhood.

My husband and I had endured pregnancy loss and infertility, so we were thrilled beyond measure when we were finally blessed with our Alison Faith. We had married in our thirties, so we had years of selfish living under our belts. No one had warned us about colic, and no one had told me that some babies just don’t need much sleep. In fact, I had heard the opposite, “Oh, babies sleep all the time.”

Not my girl.

After one particularly difficult day, my husband came home from work and asked, “How was your day? What did you do today?” Innocent questions, right?

“What did I do? What did I do? Like I can do anything! I can’t even shower or go to the bathroom when necessary! All I do is feed her, change her, rock her, feed her, change her, rock her. She won’t sleep! I can’t do this!”

My poor husband.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I would write to Aunt Neola. Surely she’d developed a schedule or formula over the years after raising eight children. Surely she could work this out for me. I plopped my little bundle of energy into a bouncy seat and wrote a quick letter.

I raced to the mailbox every day for what seemed like weeks. Finally, Aunt Neola’s response to my letter arrived. I tore open the envelope, and I was surprised to find only three words written therein:  “Die to self.”

No!  Surely she had misunderstood.

In the days that followed, I prayed for understanding, and the Lord reminded me of several Scriptures:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

“I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My father will honor the one who serves me.” (John 12:24-26)

The above verses are direct references to salvation, but they also apply to abundant living. And as I studied the verses in context with my aunt’s life, I realized that the fruit of her faith was abundant by anyone’s measurement. I believe hers was the type of abundant living to which the Scriptures refer. Because her focus was on her Lord, she would tell you that she lacked for nothing and genuinely mean it. Like Paul, she sang in her prison and loosed the chains of discouragement. Now that is victory.

I have often thought of Jesus’ words in John 10:10b:

I live that they may have life and have it to the full.” (NIV)  The New American Standard version states “have it abundantly.”

Our fleshly nature wants to believe this verse means we are promised more material wealth or fun times. But I have learned to look at the verse in light of Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life….”  If Jesus is life, and the Scriptures say He is, then to have life abundantly is to have more of Jesus, more of what empowers us to peace, joy, and victory.

Without a doubt, my Aunt Neola had life to the full. Without a doubt, her focus on Jesus transported her to The Zone.

Even when she fought cancer and weathered the loss of her dear husband, she continued to exude joy. She would always close her letters with “Joy in Jesus.”  It is in honor to and in memory of Neola Faith Van Winkle that I end everything I write with those words.


Joy in Jesus,




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