Nancy Stafford: In The Presence Of The Beholder

Former Miss Florida, best known for her role on the television series Matlock, says the Holy Spirit revealed God to her in a tender and sweet way.
by Kirk Noonan

Nancy Stafford never found acceptance as a Hollywood actress. Her fame, foutune and beauty was unfulfilling.

As a child, church was a refuge. There, the putdowns she endured during the week didn't hurt as bad. And she didn't feel ugly. While the congregation sang hymns she sat with eyes closed, basking in God's presence-a blanket of warmth, acceptance and security for her. If only for an hour, her freckles, gangly frame and gawky walk didn't matter. The only thing that did was His unconditional acceptance of her.

"I had a tender heart for God," says Nancy Stafford, 47, best known for her role as Michelle Thomas on the television series Matlock. "I never understood it then, but now I know it was the Holy Spirit. He made himself known to me in a tender and sweet way."

Yet years later, when Stafford entered college, she turned her back on God and set out on a 15-year journey that would eventually leave her feeling empty and spiritually deprived.

"In college I began to blossom," she writes in her recently released book Beauty by the Book. "I grew into my 5-foot-9-inch frame. When I did, boys began to notice, and their attention made me feel good about myself for the first time? My insecurities and low self-image were still there; they were just hidden behind the fa?ade of 'pretty' and 'popular.'"

After graduating from college, Stafford was crowned Miss Florida and became a cover girl for elite fashion magazines. The young paragon took up acting and landed a role on the daytime drama The Doctors.

She seemed to have everything most people envy: money, fame and beauty. But not all was well within Stafford.

"My security was about an inch thick," she admits. "I still saw myself the way others saw me as a child. Whenever I failed or didn't have success in relationships or bombed at an audition, the words of others from my childhood haunted me."

At 24 years old Stafford learned she had skin cancer on her face-her most prized asset. "I was scared of the surgery, but what really scared me was that the very source of my income and affirmation, my face, had become my life," she says. "I felt ashamed. After the surgery I began to search for God."

The cancer scare set her on a spiritual pilgrimage, but instead of returning to her spiritual moorings Stafford's self-guided quest led her into a myriad of Eastern religions and New Age philosophies. "I was trying to make God into my image," she says. "But I had no peace or joy."

On the whim, she ordered Power for Living, a free Christian book she saw advertised on television. She took it to Hawaii where she was scheduled to shoot an episode of Magnum P.I. Once there she discovered she was three days early and would have to wait for shooting to begin. While in her hotel room she began reading the book, and the stories of God's transforming power and love gripped her.

"In every story people described the very thing I so desperately needed and wanted," she writes in her book. "They had a relationship with God, and even though I had been searching for Him, I had come up empty. And it broke my heart."

"I cried out to Him from the depths of my pain, and He answered, ministering to me in such a way that, to this day, I've never experienced anything so powerful," she writes. "He showed me what He thought of me, how much He loved me, how much He's missed me? Then He showed me who He was, what His real nature was-that He was not only the Creator of the universe, but also my loving Father."

Through that experience Stafford not only recommitted her life to Christ, she realized that she was beautiful to God whether she was an ungainly 8-year-old or elegant beauty pageant winner. He was the One who validated the proverb, "Beauty is in the eye of the Beholder."

"There is nothing we can do to make Him love us more," she says with lingering awe. "The enemy loves to keep us in a place of bondage. Healing for me has been Jesus showing me that, because of the sacrifice He made on the cross for me, I am accepted and beautiful in my Father's eyes."

The epiphany changed her thinking, altered the kinds of acting roles she accepted and drove her closer to be in His presence again and again. But one of her toughest struggles was still to come.

Though she married when she was 35 and put off having children three more years until she finished co-starring on Matlock, she figured having children would be a snap. It wasn't.

"I've always wanted to be a mom," she says. "But then the shocking day came when my husband, Larry, and I learned having children would be very difficult if not impossible for us."

Determined, Stafford underwent several years of infertility treatments. Twice she got pregnant; twice she miscarried well into her pregnancies. "Both miscarriages were extremely painful and devastating," she says, the emotions still fresh. "After the last miscarriage the doctor informed us that I was in menopause. But I continued to pray for a miracle."

Two adoption attempts failed, so Stafford and her husband threw themselves into remodeling a ranch 70 miles outside of Los Angeles. "We had a vision to create a place where believers could come to rest, rejuvenate and heal and where the artistic community could come to work on creative projects," she says of the ranch. "It's a place of conception of dreams and vision. As time passed, the ache I had for children began to lift from me."

Stafford says she accepted not being able to have children of her own only after she relinquished her desire for them to God. "The Lord doesn't always answer our prayers the way we think He should," she says. "When I prayed for children, the only answer I received from the Lord was Him telling me, 'You will have many children someday.'"

Those children have come in the form of young actresses whom Stafford mentors in Hollywood. "It's a privilege to work with women one-on-one and to speak into their lives," she says. "They are the blessing God gave me instead of children.

"Through all of the disappointment and discouragement, I believe God saw my pain," she says. "His love is so great that when I gave Him my heartache and desires He filled in every void in unexpected and totally fulfilling ways. Ultimately, He is enough."

Whatever circumstances she faces, Stafford always turns to the Beholder of love, peace and acceptance: Jesus Christ.

"Reprinted by permission of the Pentecostal Evangel."

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