I love hearing testimonies of the saints and often find myself wishing they were a more regular part of corporate worship in churches. Recently I was pretty excited when City Reformed in Pittsburgh asked me to share how God has worked in my life. Hearing people’s stories is always a great encouragement to me, so it was touching to (hopefully) encourage others with my own. I ended up being pretty nervous - it's not easy to be vulnerable about personal experiences in front of a church. But the chance it gave me to really reflect on God’s work in my life, having to process and articulate it, was invaluable. I’ve been doing a lot of that this past year – processing God’s work in my life – so I’ve decided to share some of my processing here on the blog. I’ll start today with the testimony I shared in church.
It might be obvious, but trying to sum up a lifetime of God’s work in my heart is really difficult. As I’ve thought about it over the past few days, though, I think it comes down to two significant things. First, my will. And second, my identity.
I’ve always been a very strong willed person, and while this can really be a great asset in life, it also means that I can often find myself in conflict with others. A lot of my memories from growing up involve fights and debates, not only with my parents, but also with my siblings and friends. Simply put, I don’t naturally like having to submit to a will that I disagree with.
I never really connected this aspect of myself with my spiritual life until I was eighteen, though. I grew up in a believing home and thankfully I had a lot of wise people around me with whom I could discuss my more intellectual questions about the gospel. By the time I finished high school, I remember that most of my big questions about the meaning and reliability of the gospel message had been answered. So instead of struggling with doubt, I came to a point of struggling with the call to submit to Christ.
I distinctly remember lying in my bed one night not too long after turning eighteen and realizing that I had no doubt about the truth of scripture and the truth of the gospel, but for the first time admitting to myself that I hated God. I simply just didn’t like the idea of needing to submit my life and my will to something above me. But admitting this to myself really terrified me. Because I didn’t doubt the reality of God or the truth of scripture, I knew that willfully rejecting God was an honest choice of damnation, and I didn’t really want to be damned.
After arriving at this conundrum that night, I spent one of the longest and most “emo” weeks of my life basically just sitting around on empty park benches trying to puzzle out this battle between my will and what I knew to be true. But if you ever find yourself going through a midnight of the soul like I did, don’t expect any sudden revelations or blinding light moments. It took me a long, slow year of processing to ultimately work through this conflict.
But by the end of that first week, I had arrived at a few conclusions at least. Most importantly, I realized that because God’s will is bigger than mine, he would have to choose to let go of me in order for me to really escape him; but, from what I knew from scripture, it didn’t seem like he would do that. I had a vision that God’s will kept me in his hands. I could shake my fist at him and I was free to express my anger, but I could not just loose myself of his grasp unless he desired to let me do so. My will was beat. I could now start the process of learning about and learning to love the God whose will would always be stronger than my own, and I consider that time my real spiritual rebirth.
The second main work God has done in my life involves my sense of identity. Beginning in my childhood, I have moved nine times across three continents. This may sound exciting, but I have always desired a sense of belonging and home. I think for some people, so much transition is pretty easy; but, for me it has brought about a lot of deep rooted struggles that are often expressed in the dual needs to belong and to prove myself.
These two issues came to a head, though, when I moved to China in my mid twenties to work for a campus ministry and within six months of arriving, I found myself so sick that I couldn't get out of bed for about half of every month. I eventually discovered that I was suffering from asthma, but all I knew for many months was that I had gone from being a successful student and worker in the US to what pretty much felt like failing as a missionary. To make matters worse, I was in a strange country and struggling to build community. My sense of identity was challenged to the core as both my feelings of belonging and my ability to prove myself were taken away from me.
But amazingly, that time was the closest I have ever been to the Lord. Having all of my supports taken away from me forced me to fully lean on Christ for my sense of self. All of the worldly things that usually shape my identity were gone, but I didn’t lose myself because I discovered that as a child of God, my identity is ultimately in him. I could lose everything while far from home and still be ok because I was at home in my identity in Christ.
I tend over analyze most things, but these two ways that God has worked in my life are not simply in my head. They have had serious practical results, namely, that I am a less contentious and less fearful person. That doesn’t mean I do not still struggle with these things, but when I look back to my earlier life, I can see a difference. Learning that there is a will larger and stronger than mine has given me a freedom to repent of my sins and to trust in the provision of God. Learning that my identity is completely in Christ has started to free me of my need to prove myself and of my fear of what people think about me.
Since getting married and moving to Boston, I’ve continued to learn and grow a lot. I’m learning about the holy fear that comes when God answers a prayer you were taught to pray from the time you started speaking. I’m learning that marriage demands more of me and gives more to me than I could ever have imagined. I’m learning that loving the church requires a painful level of humility and a supernatural level of grace. And I’m learning what it means to work hard for something you want and believe in without making it an idol. Ultimately, I’ve been learning about the amazing and sweet abundance of the Lord – that his blessings are unpredictable and incredible, and that he gives far more than I deserve.
And while all of these more recent lessons are good and have been so important, I still find myself needing to learn about finding my identity and home in Christ, surrendering my will to his. These are lessons I expect will continue with me all of my days. As I anticipate how God might keep working in my life along these lines, I find myself contemplating how he wants me to learn to rest in him, letting both of these lessons lead me to greater peace.
Our God is a good God, and I hope this testimony of my own relationship with him encourages you in your own.
My brother wrote a song recently and within it exists my childhood. With the opening lines, memories flood into my mind's eye in soft dappled light. The song starts soft and beautiful and my childhood is quietness and melody. The windows of Illinois graduate student housing and screened doors that lead out to porches overlooking cornfields. German walking paths and a trampoline. Learning to say prayers and goodnight songs singing the ABCs. I see four heads, my siblings and I together. Moments on the couch, in the woods, in the back alley - shades of brown descending into blonde, blue eyes melting to brown.
And then chaos breaks loose and the memories move in rapid motion. Movement is everywhere and childhood becomes one large scream that contains all of the joy and anger of growing up. I am throwing rocks at my siblings, afraid of their togetherness against my isolation. We are playing tag and catching fireflies in summer evening hours. We walk the dog endlessly around neighborhood blocks. I am left at the table to eat food I don't want. Roller blades, scrunchies, and beaches. The American landscape whizzes by outside a minivan window, there and back and there again. We try to learn to listen to each other as we're told to do, but tears, depression, anger, yelling, and fear are so much of what we hear. Porch swings and thunderstorms. Junker cars and flat tires. Teasing about early romances, helping put the pieces back together when the heartbreak comes. We have each other’s backs at school dances. We compete with each other and it hurts. But always pride, pride, pride for the wins of each individual.
And then at the 3:45 mark my mother's hands appear in a benediction over us. The chaos of life parts and over us is spoken a blessing. Sanctification works itself out in painful and brutal slowness. But she is there, speaking peace and kindness. A moment of silence, a pause in the storm, and my father's bass breaks through to push us all ahead, deeper than we knew we could go. With my mother's hands over us and my father's bass keeping us in motion, we four go forward into the world and see what lies therein. It is terrifying and amazing, a beautiful melody and a chaotic reality entwined together.
And as we embark on transcontinental visits, weddings, and graduations, we four stay banded together. There are long distances and years of ache, but I see the dappled light go with us and we four still descend from brown to blonde, from blue to brown.
Lives unknown by fame.
And it’s tempting to hope
In the dream that caught your eye
But it’s left your heart undone.
These shoes are all worn out
From chasing flawed designs
And they’ve left me alone.
Now I’m bold enough to trade
Ambition for some rest.
Hearts restored through shame.
I envy your peace.
There’s nothing left to lose
When all your pride is gone.
The simple things in life
Are all that’s left to do
When you realize your heart
Has hope for something more
Than all your dreams can give.
Souls unseen by time.
Now it’s waiting for you,
The life you’ll have again
When this sorry world is gone.
"Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother's womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple; who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms. And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.' So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, 'Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.' And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them - walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him."
In a very short while, I will return to a place I once knew. I loved this place dearly and most often remember it with nostalgia. But when I am honest with my feelings, I remember primarily that this was the place where I learned about suffering.
I learned about suffering there in many ways. I suffered in relationships. I suffered in pride. Mostly, I suffered physically as the billowing pollution squeezed my lungs and besmirched my face. But in addition to these personal sacrifices, I witnessed the painful, blatant, and twisted suffering of others. This was in itself its own kind of suffering.
The suffering of others was visibly present every day, from the elderly trash collectors who had been pushed off their land to the mangy dogs who scrounged for food until they wound up dead in the streets. These things, however, were commonplace. These were the things that after the first few weeks ceased to cause me inner turmoil or distress. They wove their way into the fabric of society the way many of Dickens' most pathetic characters find their own important places within the narrative. These things were wrong and broken, but they seemed to have their place.
But there was one place where the suffering was so great and so visible that it continues to haunt me. If I used the bus to make my way downtown, I had to get off at a particular stop and cross a bridge to enter into the shiny wealth of the city's finest shopping mall. Upon exiting the bus, I would start to walk quickly, holding my breath, trying to mentally prepare for the sights that awaited me.
The bridge always contained beggars, and it always contained some of the most pitiful the city had to offer. All were maimed, most with their eyes gauged out. Some had been burned so wretchedly that they looked like living mummies. They sat in silence, often perfectly still, simply waiting for benevolence to find them. I was told early on that most of them had a pimp, Slumdog Millionaire style, and that giving them money would be fruitless. One day, I passed a man kowtowing violently against the sidewalk. A mixture of drool, sweat, and blood flowed from his head as he methodically beat, beat, beat his brow against the cement pavement. A crowd had gathered around him to watch, but no one acted to stop him. No one moved, they simply just gazed in silence as he begged for their assistance.
In the power of such ensnaring suffering, I felt completely powerless. I didn't speak the language, and I couldn't cause disturbances of the "peace." For the duration of my walk across the bridge, I shared physical space with these people, but the chasm that spanned my plenty and their need seemed as big as the whole earth. The barriers which separate people are often larger than space; the languages, systems, governments, alienation, gender, and myriad other issues stared me in the face and pointed at my inadequacy to bless, to heal, to comfort, to bring justice.
The more frequently I walked across the bridge, the more my soul screamed at God. I started to pray when I passed them by - internally mournful, screaming prayers. It was the only thing my mind could latch onto as the panic arose within my soul.
One day I remembered the above passage from Acts. There was no way for me to do anything for the beggars - or was there? I started to consider whether I truly thought prayer was "doing something." When I, a child of God, am in the presence of suffering and pray, do I understand that I am actively at work? Is my understanding of prayer, of God, of myself as joined to Christ full enough to believe that when I pray, I am not being passive? According to scripture, is prayer not the most aggressive thing I could do? Like Peter and John, I looked at these humans living in terrible suffering and I understood that my hands were tied. But, my status before the Redeemer is not hindered by the evils of the world and so I prayed.
These are the reflection that regularly got me across the bridge, but now, as I contemplate returning, I've begun having doubts. Yes, prayer is the primary weapon against evil, and yes, it was a good response to what I witnessed. But to my sorrow, I have realized that I never looked these people in the eye. In my rush to get across the bridge and in my desperation to deal with the turmoil in my soul, I really was still primarily focused on myself. I prayed for their deliverance because I felt uncomfortable. I rushed across the bridge because I didn't want to feel the pain. I never made eye contact because the possibility of making a connection was a degree of terrifying my mind couldn't hold.
One of the most striking phrases in the above passage is the sentence, "And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.'" This description of the connection between Peter and the beggar is terrifying. Who has this kind of confidence when dealing with the brokenness of the world? Who dares to look suffering in the eyes and request that it look back? I can't image what results would ensue from consistent interactions such as this one. I shrink from asking myself what might have come about if I had truly looked at the suffering on the bridge. I don't know what would have happened. But I know it would have challenged both me and those begging.
Right now, I am afraid of returning. I am really afraid of being confronted once again with the degree of suffering found in the world. But mostly, I think I'm afraid of myself. I'm afraid of how I respond. Will I rush across the bridge or will I look into the eyes of those who live a life I cannot fathom? Am I more afraid of the first, or of the unknown answer to the latter? I do not know.
By the age of 10, I had wanted a dog for most of my tender years. I imagined playing with it, taking it for walks, grooming it, all of which periodically led me to beg my parents for the realization of this pet. Due to our many moves and rental abodes, the habitual answer was "no." Eventually, my family landed in Pittsburgh and bought a house in my tenth year of life. This in and of itself felt like paradise and I once again reinstated the petition for a Snoke family dog. It seemed unlikely for us to move again, we had say over the house, and most importantly, we had grass. So one day I mustered up the courage to write a note of promise to my mother and father. I don't remember the particular phrasing, but the sum of what I wrote was, "If you let us get a dog, I promise with everything in me to be responsible for it, even the gross stuff. Please, please, please, please." I wrote it from the bottom of my heart and snuck downstairs to place it on my mother's desk, not having the courage to hand it to her directly. I went back to bed and prayed against reason that this note would somehow finally have an impact.
Well, the note disappeared. There wasn't an immediate response, which was a new and interesting development. For a while, I resisted the urge to bring it up in the hopes of displaying grown up detachment. But eventually, I could not hold back any longer and ventured questioning my mother to ascertain if she had actually received the note. Of course she had and I remember a quite serious conversation in which she leveled questions at me to ascertain the level of seriousness and commitment in my young heart. Oh, I wanted that dog so badly, I promised and promised to be faithful to the note and suggested my mother keep it and use it in times of unfaithfulness on my part should they ever arrive, which of course they never would! If she would just let us get a dog.
I started looking at the classifieds for free puppy adds in the newspaper. Every week, I breathlessly pulled out the printed sheets and imagined each and every breed mentioned. Then, things started to get really serious. On trips to the library, my mom started pulling dog training books of the shelves and bringing them home. She read up on the most hardy breads and how to tell if a puppy has a passive personality. One day, she announced her desire for us to get a beagle. I can still see the picture on the cover of the beagle book she was reading. We. were. getting. a. dog. Joy!
Sometime the next summer, the glorious day finally arrived. My mom's research plus my faithful classified search stumbled upon an add for free beagle puppies. They were a bit older than most puppies looking for a home and came from a farm outside the city. By now, everyone in the family was bursting at the seams with excitement and on a Saturday, we piled into our baby blue Dodge Caravan and headed for the farm. Elation sat in every seat.
After a clamorous ride, we pulled into a long driveway and immediately noticed a kennel with two adult beagles and a hoard of four puppies greeting us with howls as they jumped on the fence. We climbed out of the van and as my parents went to talk with the owner, I and my three younger siblings scoped out the puppy situation. Eventually the adults joined us and the one male and three female puppies were set free to run around the property. Two of them were highly energetic and the children immediately took a liking to them. My mother on the other hand, did not. The farmer had temporarily nicknamed them Houdini and Ankle-biter, certain bad omens for future prospects at dog training. We turned our attention to the other two. One trick for discerning a puppy's disposition my mom had read about was to pick the dog up on its back and hold it like a baby. If it struggled to get free, it would have a more active personality. What you wanted was a dog who contentedly lay passive in your arms. My dad bent over and picked up the third female and flipped her over. She lay there quietly and then suddenly reached up and gently licked his beard. She had long, soft ears and big, brown eyes. My dad said, "We'll take this one."
Ecstasy broke free and the children rushed to pet and meet the new addition. We bundled her up in a box and put her in the car, excited to start the hour long drive home. As we pulled out, the little puppy started shaking, displaying what was to be a lifelong malady of nervousness to the point of being sick when in moving vehicles . We children thought it was all purely amazing, not knowing how pathetic the poor creature would always be when it came to travel.
The puppy's six new owners commenced on the long and difficult task of choosing a name, again resorting to tips my mom had gleaned. We were instructed to think of a two-syllable name ending with an "ah" or "oh" sound since such names were supposedly easier for dogs to recognize. Somehow this task proved a lot harder than originally expected. How many pet names can you think of that fit this criteria? An early suggestion in the conversation was Sarah, but it was quickly dismissed as too much of an actual name for "real" people. But by the end of the drive home, we faced a serious shortage of other viable suggestions and decided it would have to be Sarah.
And so Sarah became a part of our family.