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 Trey lay on our living room floor groaning as he suffered from stomach problems that will here remain undisclosed. In due time his problems passed and as soon as speech was restored to my sad husband, he commenced making a series of jokes about the event. Most of his jokes were about bloating and how miserable it must be as a woman to deal with such occurrences on a regular basis. Of course, I agreed. From there we somehow ended up on the topic of menopause and whether it is a relief for women or not. Of course, I have no experience and very little knowledge regarding this life event, but I told him that I didn't think women ever felt much relief from their bodies, even post-menopause.
The female body has been on my mind a lot in the last twenty-four hours. I've been reading a really interesting book on the social and intellectual history of American women in missions and yesterday I read the story of a sixty year old missionary who was forcibly circumcised and then murdered in her home almost one-hundred years ago in protest to the missionary community's stance against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is something I had heard of before, but didn't know much about, so I spent a good hour researching it online. By the end of that hour I was pretty sick to my stomach. Even though it is illegal in most countries today, FGM is still widely practiced. It seems change has been slow over the last one-hundred years.
I've also been reflecting on the physical suffering of many women near and dear to me. Many of those close to me have suffered from a variety of illness all related to the female organs. From cysts to cancer, I've seen many friends face the realization that these things which belong to us women in order to give and create life in fact bear the marks of death. Wombs which are designed to grow living things and breasts that are intended to nourish and feed somehow become woman's greatest liability, things which doctors and celebrities tell us we should be unafraid to hack off or away, but which every woman I know touched by such scars grieves immeasurably over.
And then I've been thinking a lot about the most fundamental of woman's sorrows - the angst and pain of childbirth. The longing and fear associated with everything from conception to birth is so complicated, but so basic to every woman. No matter how advanced our society becomes, this basic issue remains at large. How can I control what my body was created to do? How can I live a life that isn't in tension with what my body will naturally do? How can I produce results when my body won't do what I thought it was supposed to do easily? Pregnancy (whether wanting it or avoiding it) has always been and will always be a battleground for women and I understand this more and more and as I hear my friends' stories about pregnancy, birth, nursing, infertility, and miscarriage.
My conclusion last night while joking around with Trey was that every woman is looking for heaven for, in, or through their bodies. We are waiting for, longing for, peace with our female physical existence and all women, throughout the ages, have desired such redemption.
As twisted as they are, we see the striving for heaven in FGM practices - women themselves are at the heart of female circumcision and it seems that fundamental to the practice is the desire to maintain purity. Women who practice FGM see their cultural definition of purity as necessary to their existence and happiness - their attempt to attain the ultimate good in their temporal reality. And in order to attain this purity they want so desperately, women willingly perpetuate a cycle of physical mutilation.
We see the longing for heaven in the Western world's glorification of birth control and family planning. Unlike our sisters in Africa, purity is not our greatest desire, but rather freedom from our physical reality. We are looking for redemption from our bodies and have created complicated systems to liberate ourselves from their natural functions. We believe that our heaven lies in Western medicine and its ability to control what for millennia has felt completely out of control.
In the most brutal and bloody ways, we see the longing for heaven in the diseases and mortality rates suffered by women. In the developed world, we witness women faced with decisions of cutting off their breasts and cutting out their wombs in order to survive. In the developing world, we watch as early marriage and childbirth itself both threatens and delivers women. Threatens because childbirth itself wrecks a woman's body and particularly so when the woman is really only a young girl and medical assistance is nonexistent. Delivers because early marriage saves the girl from certain shame at the hands of men and ostracism at the hands of women. For women suffering in hospitals around the world, their bodies are a constant reminder of the longing for deliverance.
The woman's body is a place of suffering and it produces a universal longing in women for things to be made right. The ways in which women seek for things to be made right might change over time and cultures, but from the first menstrual cramps to the last battle to save one's breasts, women are constantly reminded that all is not well in this world. We know things must be set right because we know that things must be set right in us. We take extreme measures to find heaven for our female bodies through FGM practices or abortion or preventative double-mastectomies because we are desperate to make all well as we face the physical reminder our own bodies give us that the world is broken. The problem is that we most often seem incapable of knowing what heaven to be long for and it leads us to dark and twisted places.
Women are earthy. Our physicality makes us so as we bleed and lactate and cry. Religions and philosophy and medical practices over the vast array of civilization have demonstrated the degree to which woman's body is associated with the earth. And along with the creation, our female bodies groan for redemption.
"For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the songs of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies."
I don't know what our physical existence will be like in the new heavens and new earth. I don't think scripture reveals much about it to us. But I do know this - the longings and groanings regarding the realities of my and my sisters' bodies will be redeemed. It may include all of my reproductive organs or it may not, but I know that my female body will find heaven at last.
The author of the following and I come very different perspectives and I would be remiss to recommend much of her other work, but her thoughts here are beautiful and thought-provoking. So I thought I would share...
"Our theme is the world of life, the word communicated through... a word written in blood. In his blood shed for us Jesus signs the new testament assuring us of God's forgiveness and bringing us into a new relationship with one another... The litmus test of our love for God is our love for others, our love expressed not only in the giving of our lives but in the sharing of our goods, our livelihood, with the poor of the world.
And for some that has meant literally laying down their lives. For since we last met we have seen the body of Christ shedding its own blood through the witness of the martyrs... who died with clothes stained with the blood of sacrifice, blood freely given for the poor and oppressed in the struggle for justice and in the ministry of reconciliation.
The shedding of blood can be a symbol of creation and life rather than destruction and death. For a woman the shedding of blood which is sometimes thought of as a curse is in fact a blessing. It is a sign that her body is being prepared to give birth if and when life is conceived within her. And even if she personally never knows the privilege of motherhood, the instincts and energies released within her can be used by God in the partnership of sustaining and nourishing his children, deprived or robbed of their full human dignity. She is called to magnify life wherever it is diminished, as, like Mary, the mother of Jesus, she magnifies the Lord.
Jesus compared his disciples to a pregnant woman. While the world waits hopefully she must agonize and labour to bring to birth the life hidden within her.
We live in a world pregnant with his coming kingdom. We share the travail and the labour and the sweat of bringing to birth that new age of the son of God, to whom, as the writer of the epistles puts it, the spirit, the water and the blood bear witness."
- Dr. Pauline Webb based on 1 John 1:1-4, " " and Matthew 24:4-8, "
"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.