Brand-New Day: God Forgives Sin

NIKKI LEONTI finds beautiful things can come from second chances.
by Melissa Riddle

Providence is a word the old folks used a lot to talk about the mysterious ways God works in the universe.

?Big news.
?Little miracles
?Unexpected change.
?Frightening moments.
?Life-changing surprises.

There are events that God allows to occur because He created us as people who have the will and potential for both good and evil, right and wrong.

For Nikki Leonti, a teenager with a bright, shiny career in Christian music ahead of her, providence found her face to face with devastating news: "You're pregnant." She knew the possibility existed - she and her fianc?, Ryan Gingerich (formerly of Scarecrow & Tinmen), had been sexually intimate - but the reality of the news compounded the guilt that consumed them both.

"I grew up in a family that was always up in front of the church, the kind where we didn't tell family secrets, we just lived this perfect little life, or so it seemed. That kind of went into my career, trying to project this perfect image. When I found out I was pregnant, that was the first time anything, any failure, was out in the open? My first thought was 'How can I hide this?"

She knew trying to hide would only make the situation worse. This image-shattering failure was especially hard to accept because Nikki was so accustomed to being the good girl. But loneliness, a lack of self-esteem and a lack of supervision on the road - one moment when she and Ryan made a poor choice - had totally, irreversibly changed the path of her life.

"At the time, I thought it was cool having my boyfriend on the road with me," she says, looking back, "but when you're staying in the same hotel, it's hard to keep everything in check. I thought I was strong enough to handle it. I had taken a real strong stance on abstinence and had even promoted that from the stage ? Before I started dating Ryan, I'd never kissed a guy or even held a guy's hand?"

But, she says, there was an emptiness and loneliness that a 17-year-old isn't equipped to handle, and in her weakness, she tried to fill that void. "More than anything," she says, "I wanted to be loved. I wanted to be loved. I wanted to feel loved. There was a hole in my spiritual life at the time, a distance from God, and I was trying to find that completion. I thought Ryan could fill all those voids, all the friendship and family that I was missing.

"Of course, no one can do that."

Today, almost two years later, a 20-year-old wife and mother sits across a coffee shop table, tired little lines around her big doe eyes. Youthful and yet certainly no longer a child, Nikki Leonti is as comfortable in her own skin as she's ever been.

She shares openly the pain of disappointing her parents, the shame of disappointing those around her, of losing her self-respect and questioning whether she and Ryan could respect each other and move forward together.

The emotional toll was overwhelming, putting her at risk physically. By the fifth month of her pregnancy, she had lost 25 pounds and was confined to bed much of the time. But one day, as the guilt and shame that consumed her began to give way to providence, she started to open up.

"I began to talk to God," she says. "I felt so unworthy and embarrassed and unsure that it was even possible to have a relationship with Him again, but I began to hear Him speaking to my heart, telling me to let go and give it all to Him. Around that time, I started getting out and just being with other people. Ryan and I got really involved at church. And then one day, there was just this clear hit from God saying, 'Let go. I died for a reason and that reason was you.'

"I had talked a lot about restoration at my concerts, but I never really realized that it applied to me too? The day I let go of the guilt and the shame, the day I laid that down, everything completely changed. There was such peace?It was like the world had been lifted."

She and Ryan began going to marriage counseling and were placed in an accountability group with two other couples in their church, "working through issues we didn't even realize were there," she says. There, they had access to the guidance and support they needed to survive such a traumatic beginning.

"Marriage, even before the baby arrived, was such a big shock. We're still adjusting, growing and learning, and it's not easy. We've had to become selfless, to think less of our own wants and needs; and then especially when you have a baby, you just have to die to self. Everything is about what she needs."

With life-altering events often comes an unbelievable aftershock. The house that once was is topped down to its foundation. The reality of the past catches up with the present and begins to reshape the future. For Nikki, getting pregnant and getting married in such an image-conscious Christian subculture meant that nothing could stay the same.

"I knew in coming back [to Christian music] I'd have to deal with the repercussions. Some people aren't willing to forgive. I've had people hang up on me when I'd call their bookstore. But if the God of the universe can forgive me, I'd hope people would be willing to as well. I can understand people's feelings ? You don't have to buy the record or come to my concert, but just accept where God has moved me to. I know that what I did was completely wrong, and I take responsibility for my own poor choices, but God has taught me so much from all of this."

One of those lessons was that God still has a place of ministry for her, a place she's better equipped to serve in because of her experience. For a long time, she says, "I felt I'd never have a ministry again. But now I know that if God only called perfect people to do His ministry, nothing would ever be done for Him."

But, she says, coming back to music was never not an option, really, and it's something she's pursuing with her self-titled sophomore album. "I made an oath to God: As long as I have a voice, I will use it for His glory. I will use it to minister to people. That's why I do what I do, not for that one hour on stage, but for all that time afterwards when I can talk to other young girls and women.

"There are so many girls who lack good relationships or any relationships with their fathers, and they look to men and sex to fill that missing piece, to replace what they missed in not having a loving father. I'm trying to encourage girls to see God as a loving father, to see Him in a different light and lean on Him to complete them. That emptiness, that loneliness is the common denominator in people's lives."

Only God, she says, can help you look at yourself and your life in the right perspective.

"I don't really like to think about where I would be if this hadn't happened to me. This whole experience has been very humbling, but it has been the birthing of the change in my own life. It brought me to a whole new place with God. I look at [my daughter] Jaslyn, and I feel so blessed to be where I am.

"If we can give them to Him, God can take the choices we make, however bad, and make beautiful things."

"Originally published in the November 2001 issue of CCM Magazine, copyright 2001, CCM Communications. Reprinted with permission. For CCM Magazine subscription information, please call: 800/333-9643."

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