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.
I have seen more snow this winter than I have ever seen before. That is excepting Colorado in winter, but its snow was already on the ground, not coming out of the sky. When I tell friends anywhere outside of Boston than our total snowfall for the year currently sits at 7.5 feet and that the weathermen are telling us there is no reason to expect an end yet, the first thing they gasp out is, "Are you surviving?"
Let's just say... I'm so incredibly glad I'm not one of the early Puritans coming to America. I understand better now their death rates. I find it almost unfathomable to think about how they did survive with pretty much woods shacks and zero food. I feel like I'm going to die with my nice centrally heated apartment and a well-stocked grocery store 5 minutes away.
The real question, though, is not how are we surviving physically, but rather, how are we bearing up in our spirits. We've had a blizzard every weekend for the past 4 weeks. I'm guessing that for people from places like Canada and Erie that's no big deal, but it's a huge deal when you had no expectation of living according to the whims of the weather vortex that suddenly decided to land on your city. The mental taxation is amazing as almost every aspect of public life suddenly becomes very frustrating and complicated.
Frankly, I understand why depression rates are higher in colder climates. As the physical world caves in on life, bringing with it darkness and confined quarters, it's only natural that our souls respond in kind. Our souls are intimately connected to physical reality; they can't and don't survive aloof from outer realities.
What has been necessary for me to survive is finding the presence of the Lord in it. All of my friends know that I struggle with busyness. My life often feels hectic and chaotic and overly full of people. But this crazy month of snow has taken much of that away. Every week as my world is once again turned into a living snow globe, I am allowed to step back and retreat from the pace of life.
In many ways, I have found the last month to be one of the most spiritually healthy for me in a long time. The slower mornings and evenings have allowed me to take care of myself in ways I often struggle to do. I've exercised my body more consistently and generally taken more time to plan meals (though I feely confess that recent days have been an exception). I've read more than I have in maybe years and I've made some good headway on a quilting project I started last fall. My husband is teaching me how to play video games. I know for some that may not seem like a healthy use of time, but for me, it's trying something new (always a good thing), I find it better than watching TV (yay for active relaxation!), and it helps us do something together that doesn't stoke my competitiveness (growing in marriage... always a good thing). I can count more things I'm either doing for the first time or picking back up after a long hiatus in last month than in the whole last year.
To my biggest benefit, though, I have started my mornings more quietly than I have in a long time. When you're life is suddenly this quiet, there is only so much gooning out on Facebook you can do before it starts to turn your stomach and so I've been more consistently reading scripture with breakfast than I have in a long time. It is deeply refreshing. I guess if my spiritual growth requires the mental fatigue of 7 feet of snow, I'll take it. I long for spring and sunshine and any shoe that's not a boot, but more than any of those things, I'm thankful for the monkish solitude of cancelled meetings and closed public transportation.
One of the books I've enjoyed reading these recent weeks is Brother Lawrence's The Practice of the Presence of God. I'll leave you with the following passage:
"If sometimes he is a little too much absent from that divine presence, God presently makes Himself to be felt in his soul to recall him, which often happens when he is most engaged in his outward business... My God, here I am all devoted to thee. Lord, make me according to Thy heart. And then it seems to him (as in effect he feels it) that this God of love, satisfied with such few words, reposes again, and rests in the fund and center of his soul. The experience of these things gives him such an assurance that God is always in the fund or bottom of his soul that it renders him incapable of doubting it upon any account whatever.
Judge by this what content and satisfaction he enjoys while he continually finds himself so great a treasure. He is no longer in an anxious search after it, but has open before him, and may take what he pleases of it.
He complains much of our blindness, and cries often that we are to be pitied who content ourselves with so little. God, saith he, has infinite treasure to bestow, and we take up with a little sensible devotion, which passes in a moment. Blind as we are, we hinder God and stop the current of His graces. But when He finds a soul penetrated with a lively faith, He pours into it His graces and favors plentifully; there they flow like a torrent which, after being forcibly stopped against its ordinary course, when it has found a passage, spreads itself with impetuosity and abundance.
Yes, we often stop this torrent by the little value we set upon it. But let us stop it no more; let us enter into ourselves and break down the bank which hinders it. Let us make way for grace; let us redeem the lost time, for perhaps we have but little left. Death follows us close; let us be well prepared for it; for we die but once, and a miscarriage there is irretrivable.
I say again, let us enter into ourselves. The time presses, there is no room for delay; our souls are at stake. I believe you have taken such effectual measures that you will not be surprised... Those who have the gale of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep. If the vessel of our soul is still tossed with winds and storms, let us awake the Lord, who reposes in it, and He will quickly calm the sea."
Sometimes I am a brat. And sometimes The Lord is kind to me in spite of it.
Today has been crazy in the very best of ways. Trey and I have been in Michigan for a staff training all weekend and were scheduled fly back home out of Detroit this afternoon. When we checked in, the Delta kiosk notified us that the flight was overbooked and asked if we wanted to be put on the volunteer list to take another flight. We chose the voucher amount for which we would be willing to give up our flight if need be and headed to the gate.
Of course, complete chaos greeted us when we arrived. The terminal was packed and every passenger had a sour expression on his or her face. Yuck. When our name was called to talk to the desk about giving up our seat, the only alternative flight for us to take was tomorrow morning, so we declined the offer. The voucher amount we had agreed to really wasn't worth giving up an afternoon flight for a night in an airport hotel and an early morning flight the next day.
So we boarded the plane and settled in. Every livid passenger was loaded and then came the announcement that the flight was still overbooked and that they were still looking for passengers to give up their seats for that morning flight. Trey and I looked at each other and decided to check in with the stewardess and see if they had upped the voucher offer. Of course they had, because no one was budging on that flight, and so we jumped on it. We grabbed our belongings, got off the plane, and soon had vouchers in our hands for twice the amount we had initially bargained for!
Now, this thing happens all of the time. Flights are overbooked and folks deal with inconvenience in order get a free flight out of it. Why was today so incredible for me?
For the past three months, my husband and I have been wrestling over whether we can afford to go to Europe next summer. We don't have tons of money, but we have a lot of frequent flyer miles and both sets of parents will be in the UK. From one perspective, it's not infeasible for us to go visit. From the other perspective, it's not the best use of our money. And this is the heart of the problem. How do you know how to make these decisions? What is wise and what is frivolous? What is practical and what is miserly?
Trey and I have stood on, exchanged, and danced around both sides of the issue for months, and it has not been easy. We have laughed about it and we have cried about it (ok, let's be honest, mostly I've cried about it.) In the end, we have learned so much about each other in the process. It's amazing what something like this teaches you about your spouse. This has been one of the issues that hasn't been serious enough to pour time and energy into, nor has it been small enough to just laugh it off. And sometimes those are the very hardest.
Apart from learning a ton about my husband, his priorities and the way he thinks, I've mainly learned a lot about my brattiness. In particular, I've learned a lot about my brattiness with the Lord. There have been very legitimate things for me to be upset or frustrated about concerning this decision, but those have been really small compared to the great many things I've gotten upset about that were not worth it. And I don't think I really saw that until today, when for no apparent reason, God gave us exactly what we needed to be able to do this special thing we really wanted to do.
God blessed us today and I don't know why. Going to Europe is not a need. Going to Europe is not particularly beneficial to us. I've been a pretty big brat about it a lot. This story is not an example of God taking care of your needs exactly when you most needed him to. This isn't about God fulfilling his promises, because we all know God never promised we would get every frivolous thing we ever wanted.
Rather this story is about God giving one of his daughters something good when she totally didn't deserve it. And that's the incredible God we serve - a God who gives extraordinary gifts and blessings to people who truly are not worthy of them.
My heartstrings are trying to tie themselves to the things which are passing. I find peace only when they are tied to you. Cut them free from the entanglement into which I've let them fall and hold them tightly in your hand.