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.
Last night I sat on my husband's lap and cried into his shoulder. I wasn't really sure why I was crying. In some ways it felt like I was crying over nothing. In other ways it felt like I cried because of everything. I wasn't so upset that I couldn't talk. It was one of those strange moments when tears are coming out of your eyes and snot is welling up in your noes, but you look significantly worse than you feel. All of my thoughts were still with me, and unlike the many other occasions when crying makes them murkier and more confusing, last night's cry put everything into focus.
It's been a weird week. It's been hard to even know why it's been weird. I've been stressed to the max with a Master's thesis I'm trying to write. Each day I've sat down and seriously doubted everything - my topic, my timeline, my brain. Which of course has led me to doubt so many other things about myself - life choices, financial situation, calling. And when I doubt those things, I tend to go on crazy power grabbing hunts. I set my eyes on the best schools I could possibly get into. I make crazy goals for myself like working five career advancing jobs and working out every day and publishing and eating only healthy food and loving everyone I meet and serving in every way possible in my church and getting pregnant right now and cooking more often and... and... and...
I recently read an article someone posted on Facebook about how women can't have it all and how we shouldn't be trying to have it all. Last night, what brought me to tears was realizing why I struggle with wanting it all. The question isn't whether I can or should try for it all, but rather, why do I even want it all in the first place? The truth is, more than anything else in life, I want glory. It's like lead poisoning in my soul. It's so much a part of my nature and a part of my environment that I don't even know it's there until I face these weeks when the sheer stress of it all makes the poisoning obvious.
I have struggled with this disease my entire life. In fact, I would even go so far as saying that a lust for glory is the single more basic thing for understanding who I am and the decisions I've made. It's been intangible enough that it isn't immediately obvious when looking at my life. But when I think of my youngest self and the way I wanted, truly thirsted after being a princess, movie star, or celebrity more than anything else, I see this desire for glory. Then I grew up a little and my pre-teen interests developed and I fell in love with ice skating and dreams of going to the Olympics, and still it was there. Of course those dreams didn't last, but by then I was a teenager and the definition of glory simply changed. The glory I sought after didn't have to be world-renowned. No, I was pretty content with seeking after the more localized glory of "coolness." I wanted to be cooler than everyone else, alone in my glory among the throngs of the "uncool" world. By college, this desire hadn't quite dissipated, but a different sense of glory was growing in competition. Romance. I wanted to find the one person who would bring me the more adult glory of marriage and sex. That was a long quest, and eventually it choked out the glory of being cool. It's amazing, though, how quickly everything changed once I got married. Almost immediately, my heart made the subtle shift from relational glory to the glory of a career. With one major thing checked off, the glory quest moved on to the next thing.
Sometimes I am just so damn tired of it. I have repented and repented and repented again of this thing inside me, but most often it seems like there is just so little to do about it. It is so far, deep, down in my soul that unless I am actively staring it in the face, it will resurrect. It will come back again, and then again in one form or another. It's not the whack-a-mole of sin. At least with whack-a-mole, the mole always looks the same and there are a limited number of spots where it can appear. It's more like the shape-shifting living dead - I can never tell it's there until it's eating me alive because it never looks the same.
As I've been struggling through all of this over the past week, a few images have been floating through my head. First, the funerary words, "She hath done what she could," spoken in memory and honor of a dead 19th century missionary wife. (If you want to know where in the world I got that from, ask my thesis.) Second, the image of Furiosa from Mad Max. These are two very incongruous images - there probably isn't anything more oddly juxtaposed than a meek and petticoated woman from two hundred years ago and a feminist icon who rips the bad guys' heads off. But they are deeply linked in my mind.
I just watched Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time last weekend. I had wanted to see it when it came out and I read all of the countless reviews raving about Furiosa. But I don't think I could have understood just how striking she is as a character until seeing the movie for myself. She is, hands down, my favorite portrayal of a heroine I have encountered to date. My favorite used to be Tolkien's Eowyn, but Furiosa cast a light on Eowyn I had never noticed before. I haven't read the books and or watched the movies for quite a long time, so my memory may be faulty, but I remember it being pretty clear that Eowyn wants the glory of battle. She is not allowed to go and so there is a lot of discussion about her desire to participate in something so honorable. She wants to protect her home and family, yes, but she honestly also just wants to be part of something so downright great. Eowyn wants glory. Furiosa, on the other hand, is not once portrayed as considering glory, or even herself, in her quest. She has a mission and she will do whatever it takes to complete it. Whereas Eowyn's desire for a glorious quest requires her to be secretive and cut off from the others, Furiosa's mission requires her to know both her strength and her weakness, enabling her to ask for help when and where she needs it. At the end of Eowyn's battle, she has done something remarkable and she has done something good, but there is much about her narrative that is clearly focused on Eowyn and her triumph as a victory for herself. At the end of Furiosa's tale, however, the clear narrative is that "She hath done what she could."
I think for my entire life, I have wanted to be Eowyn. I have never been able to look beyond the glory involved in the good things there are to do. I have never been able to truly escape myself in the various quests I've set out upon. But glory is not mine to seek. Glory is something that belongs to God alone. As my sweet husband reminded me last night while my snot and mascara smeared across his sweater, one day, because I am his heir and child, God will glorify me at the end of time as he promised. "For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, 'Abba! Father!' The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him." But let's be honest, I don't even really know what that means - to be glorified with God one day. So while I may live in the hope of glory, I really can't seek it now, in this life.
In the end, I'm not even really sure what I'm trying to process in this post other than that I need Jesus. And I need whatever the anti-lead-poisoning equivalent for the soul is. Which is probably just more of Jesus. I'm really not a fan of the "just open to a certain page and find God's message for you" approach to life, but sometimes it is shocking how well it works. Most nights, I tend to just lie in bed gooning out on my phone while Trey brushes his teeth. But last night, for some inexplicable reason, I put the phone down and picked up Augustine's Confessions. I have it in my stack of books next to my bed as a hopeful "one day I won't look at my phone and will read this instead" reminder. I opened to wherever I had last left off and found the following words. "You have rescued me from all the evil roads I have trodden, and given me a sweetness surpassing all the pleasant by-paths I used to pursue. Let me have a mighty love for you; in my inmost being let me hold tight to your hand, so that you may deliver me from every temptation to the very end." (1.15.24)
All of the paths of glory are my lustful temptations, but God has rescued me from them. The cure for my glory-sickened, leaden heart is the same one Augustine sought - to hold tight, very tight, in my inmost being to the hand of God.
Trey and I just had the best weekend. We went on a "workcation" to an island off the coast of Maine. Trey took his homework and I took some personal projects I'm working on and we hung out in a beautiful renovated barn. Every morning we woke up to the sound of crickets and seagulls out the windows. We opened up the french doors to look out on our host's luscious garden while cooking bacon and eggs for breakfast. After dinner we drank wine and listened to jazz. It was great.
Now we're home and for the past couple of hours, I've been really struggling with disappointment. We're anticipating next year holding a lot of changes for us as Trey wraps up his degrees and works while I become a full-time student. For the past couple of months, I've been trying to figure out exactly what I'm going to study and where. But it's all so complicated and it seems like every day I have a new plan. And plans can be very dangerous things for me.
Part of the joy of this last weekend was that the seclusion and disconnect from reality gave me space to think and dream. I have so many ideas about my time in school and I think they are good ideas. A weekend of reading and contemplating and hashing things out with my husband was so exciting. My imagination could just run with its thoughts.
But coming back home and regaining cell service and unlimited internet access reawakens reality. I'm confronted with costs and time constraints and professors retiring and all I can feel is disappointment seeping in. Reality is not bad and I know it, but I still feel frustrated and let down.
As I descended into the pit of self-pity this evening, a thought occurred to me and challenged my disappointment with the situation. Here was my thought: I am going to be the same person after this degree as I am now. Such freedom accompanied this thought! Going back to school is going to be a really good thing. Getting to study and write about my particular interests would be a really great thing. But none of it is going to magically alter my life.
It's so easy for me to see these changes coming my way as something that will make me happier. I look forward to getting to do what I want to do and developing certain skills I believe I have. But none of that is going to change who I am at the center of my being. Wanting change is not a bad thing. It's just that I have to ask myself, am I wanting the right change? Maybe school will enable me to do certain things, but it's not what will make me a better person. If I'm tired of myself now, relief won't come through avoiding disappointing circumstances, but rather through changing my heart.
Going back to school won't somehow make me the person I've always wanted to be. It won't save me from let down and disappointment. Seeing myself through the eyes of Jesus will turn me into the person my soul longs to be. For in him I can find satisfaction not only with the ups and downs of sunrise in Maine and sunset back in my home office, but most importantly, with the person he has made me now and the person is making me to become.
Here are some interesting thoughts from the introduction to a new favorite coffee table book called Bird Watching by Paula McCartney.
I saw the book in a shop some time back and have had my eye on it since. I finally recently added it to my collection. The photos are very pretty and I was shocked when, after opening up the packaging and starting to explore its insides, I discovered McCartney's photographed world is a fake! Not a single real bird is depicted, but rather cheap craft store replicas. After a few incredulous moments, I laughed out loud and read the introduction. In it, Karen Irvine, the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, offers a refreshing and fascinating discourse on how we hope to encounter nature and the role photography plays. She questions our motives and applauds McCartney's work as a tongue-in-cheek and whimsical exploration of our attitudes.
For those of us who love and frequent Instagram, dumping bajillions of pictures of our encounters with the world onto Facebook, I think the below thoughts are incredibly important. Are our expectations of nature honest? Do they need to be in the first place? It's good food for thought, so I'm passing on this paragraph, though I definitely encouraging you to check out the book itself.
"While the pristine natural settings McCartney photographs are already picturesque, she was looking for something more: 'I wanted to make the landscapes more romantic, more idyllic,' she explains. Like many painters throughout history, McCartney creates fictions at will, and uses birds as symbolic, beautiful elements within a controlled composition. And like the doves who repair Cinderella's dress in Walt Disney's movie, her passerines are friendly, feel-good additions to the landscape. McCartney's pictures reveal a strong need for the fulfillment of an ideal. In this respect they call forth broader issues concerning our relationship to nature and wildlife: What are our expectations when we approach the natural landscape? Are we always waiting for certain romantic experiences to punctuate our wandering, such as a deer running by or a perfect snowflake landing on our mittens? To what extent are we trying to satisfy a preexisting image of nature that we carry in our minds? And what role does photography play in fixing these images and desires in our consciousness?"
I went to buy some apples from my regular fruit stand this afternoon and starting thinking about the physical difficulties I am facing here in Asia. My fruit seller has lazy eyes and decaying ears and I buy his fruit not because it is the best, but rather because the man stirs up compassion within me. I don't know what causes it or if it's really as bad as I think, but the edges of his ears are often black and wilting.
My heart often breaks as I think about the physical conditions of those living around me, but today I realized I am not too different from them. The harsh environment of this city created by both natural factors and the falleness of man is taking a toll on all of us whether it is my lungs, the fruit sellers ears, the grandma with no teeth bent over double, or the student with gray hairs. The lives of this city's citizens mirror the buildings surrounding them as they crumble under acid rain even as they are built.
My body often hurts here, but today's trip to the fruit stand was the beginning of peace and maybe even pride in the pain. I am starting to say, "It's ok" and bow my head because how can I expect to be different from the people I live with? They are in pain, too. Afterall, their ears decay. If the people I live with suffer, why shouldn't I? Of course I long for healing and am seeking medical assistance, but my soul is realizing that suffering alongside the residents of this crumbling city increases my love and pity for them.
Two months ago, I was convicted to pursue further indigenization and maybe this is it. I don't want to presume anything, but just maybe this is how my Father wants me to identify with this corner of the world.
I can't watch this short film without getting choked up, and maybe even crying. Since high school, I have wrestled with how to hold the beauty of this world and life in one hand and the destruction and despair we all witness in the other. I still don't have any great answers, but I am learning to keep an eye out for those who do. This movie strikes especially close to home because the longer I live in Asia, the more I become convinced that understanding the Creator's larger story of redemption is the only way to accept the majesty and horribleness of existence without succumbing to one or the other and furthermore, that once we understand the story, we are propelled into playing out the story, being given roles and purposes in the advancement of redemption.