Christian life

The God Who Answers With Fire

This is a testimony.

The last time I gave a testimony, I was on a high from answered prayers and excellent performance. The tail end of 2017 produced breakthrough after breakthrough, in miraculous circumstances, and I–along with the people around me–was confident that it would only get better from there.

I was hopeful, in 2018, that we would only see success after success.

…that was not what happened.

The Bible says that we’re not supposed to make a show of praying and fasting, but considering my church has a hashtag for every year–this year’s is #ENfast2019–I don’t think it’s wrong to reveal that this is exactly what I’m doing right now. I’m praying and fasting, and it feels too early to be having breakthroughs (those usually come during the last night of the fast, which this year is this coming Friday), but I don’t know what else to call this. When I last shared a testimony, it was God making clear that he can move mountains, that he can deliver victories when all expect defeat.

That was 2017.

In 2018, he taught me something else: that he can deliver victory *in* defeat.

At the beginning of 2018, for the first time ever, I asked God for a word to define my year. He answered immediately–which is rare for Him, He usually likes to make me wait–and clearly. The word was pruning, which is not a word that usually excites Christians, but it excited me because I felt that it meant he was going to remove all the other responsibilities and tasks and work from my life that wasn’t connected to the one big thing that I was meant to do (I was sure this was music-related.). I believed that I would exit 2018 with a clear idea of my purpose, my future, and what I was going to be doing on this earth.

…that was not what happened.

In 2018, every single month of the year, nothing I had planned managed to happen. I fell short on my work goals, struggled through music school, found myself functionally demoted at work (people had to keep being hired on top of me as my shortcomings became evident), and exited 2018 with nothing to show for my promise or my struggles. From the girl with all the potential, I was reduced to someone no longer competent and full of ideas, the way I used to be. I was not the “superstar,” the “rockstar,” the girl with the plans who made things happen. I was the kind of person who claimed a Joseph anointing, that God would manifest himself by making me excellent wherever I went. In hindsight, that was arrogance: I was arrogant, belligerent, disrespectful of authority, convinced that I was the best because I was “blessed.”

At the lowest point of 2018, I found myself grappling with a depression so deep it rendered me numb. I’ve mentioned having been diagnosed in 2017 as having dysthymia, which is a mild and cyclical form of depression, but this felt anything but mild. I was bitter. I had no energy to do anything. I was weak and constantly on the verge of crying or else flying into a rage. I felt like I wasn’t in control of myself, and that it took all my energy just to look “normal” so I wouldn’t hurt anyone (with varying degrees of success). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that 2018 crushed me, such that I would repeat to my mother over and over that I had lost the sense of who I was and now felt helpless.

As part of preparing for Prayer and Fasting, I took some time to reflect on 2018 and everything that had happened. It was then that I found the journal entry listing my word for the year: pruning.

Right then, it hit me.

I don’t know what else you could call what I’d experienced as anything but just that: pruning. God wasn’t going to remove tasks from me, because God is not a God of to do lists. Instead, I realized God is more concerned with who I would be in Him, and so he painfully, brutally tore away and burned and broke off everything that would hinder me from being who I needed to be in him: dependent, submitted, reliant, humbled. I have always struggled with depending on God, because I have always been so competent.

Well, there’s no question of that now.

As I was doing devotions today, it hit me that everything I thought was a setback last year was instead a manifestation of God’s promise. He promised to prune me. And he delivered. I know it sounds crazy, considering what a painful year I had, how humbling it was, how terrifying the future now seems. And yet, for the first time in maybe ever, it feels like I have nothing to be afraid of, because for the first time in a long time I know something for sure: God does what He says He will. He promised to prune me, and he did that. He made a promise and he kept it. God is a God who keeps His word.

The last time I can remember being filled with faith was after my Seoul trip with Esther. During that trip, I got a sense that I was called to go into ministry involving the arts, that said ministry would be connected to mental health, and that possibly said ministry would be reaching out to the youth using music in countries that were not my own. In the depths of my depression, I questioned whether God could even use me for ministry at all, whether or not I had made that declaration of a calling “too early” because I was such a vulnerable, broken, unstable mess that I couldn’t see God using me. Now I realize that it isn’t about my state of “suitability,” but about what He says he will do. He made me a musician. He made me a storyteller. He gave me this heart, no matter how weak and fragile its beat is. He knows about my illnesses, my hangups, my frailties. Knowing all that, He decides the calling. And, after the 2018 I have just had, I think I have it loud and clear that He will do what He says He will do, regardless of what the world says, and regardless of my expectations.

I asked God what His word for me is in 2019. Like the last time, he answered immediately. Like the last time, he answered clearly. The word for 2019 was PROMISE, the verse accompanying it one that I used to consider a cliche: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a hope and a future.'” (Jeremiah 29:11) I used to dismiss that verse as banal encouragement, but today it sounds instead like a war cry, a declaration of authority, of God saying “I know the plans I have for you. You don’t know them, but I do.”

God is a God of His Word, and His Word is a promise. I may not know what that promise looks like, but He does. And I know for sure that He always does what He says He will. All I need is to follow where He leads, trusting that I do not need to know because he does.

The first ever spoken word verse I wrote went something like this: “I serve a God who answers with fire.”

In the darkest moments of 2018, terrified and broken and uncertain, I would find myself crying out to God: “Lord, I cannot move unless you move. I will not go anywhere without you.”

It wasn’t a question, but I think I have an answer. “From here on out,” God says, “You will never have to.”

1 Timothy 4:12: scattered thoughts on being young and setting an example.

“Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this verse lately.

When I was younger, I read it as a vindication, something I could use to beat old people on the head with (not literally, of course) when they patronized me for being young and ignorant. The NIV translation is even more effective for this sort of thing; it reads: “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young…” and that “Don’t let” feels forceful, powerful, defiant in the hands of an angry teenager who thinks that grown-ups just don’t understand.

I’m twenty-five now, and while in some ways, I’m still that angry teenager–I think they call it “moody artist” now that I’m closer to thirty than my teenage years–I’d like to think I have a better grasp of what that verse is supposed to mean, one that’s made me less likely to use it as an immediate and violent comeback, and more as a call to–forgive my choice in words–play the long game.

At a meeting I was in last week, someone said something that stuck with me. They said, and I paraphrase: “If you aren’t married, with children, in debt, and struggling to keep a business afloat, you have no right to complain.

The angry teenager in me couldn’t help herself: I retorted with, “Try living with a mental illness.” This sparked a mini-argument where I, the lone twenty-something notorious for being emotionally unstable, was pitted against a table full of “adults” who were, by most standards, further along in life and life experience than I was. Most of them chose not to engage with either me or the original speaker, but enough was said that I left the meeting angry.

That I am, to be honest, still fighting that anger, even now.

In the initial rush of “righteous indignation” after that exchange, 1 Timothy 4:12 popped into my head, and I was tempted to wield the initial half of it as a weapon against that old enemy: grown-ups who just don’t understand. But before I could march over to the person and “rebuke” them, I suddenly remembered the second half: “…but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.”

Timothy was a young leader in charge of shepherding a multi-generational church in a culture that placed the old above the young in status. In this situation, Paul does not ask Timothy to use his calling or his position to exert his authority. Instead, he asks Timothy to set an example.

A friend and I had a conversation recently about the things he didn’t like in the music industry, one that boiled down to me encouraging him to make the change by being everything he felt the indie scene should be. We see posts about this on the internet all the time–be the change you wish to see in the world, and all that–but lately it’s hit home that the best way to fight things you don’t like is not to rant or shout them down: it’s to just be different.

I don’t often feel like a good example of what is like to be a Christian or a leader. Actually, scratch that: I never feel like a good example of either of those things. I will be the first to admit that I can be impulsive, stubborn, arrogant, and self-righteous: things that lately I’m becoming more aware of. Heck, I know that my initial violent reaction was, for all of my good intentions, colored with self-righteousness. And yet the charge is clear: to ensure that no one “despises me for my youth,” I need to overcome all these things and set that example in speech (good luck), in conduct (for real?!), in love (oh boy), in faith (you’re kidding, right?), and in purity (does a ring count?).

Funny, though, that this realization feels less like a rebuke and more like an encouragement. I know what I am, and what I’m not, but lately that knowledge has stung less. When God points out my self-righteousness, my anger, or my pride, I don’t feel like he’s condemning me at all. Instead, it’s like dance class, when the teacher tells me my back isn’t straight yet or I need to watch my turns: an implicit acknowledgment that we will get there, together, eventually.

I got angry at what that person said in my meeting last week, because it felt like someone was invalidating my struggles, telling me my problems were not “real” in comparison to more grown-up concerns like taking care of kids or working on one’s marriage. But looking back, how many times have I invalidated someone else’s problems because they weren’t to the scale of my own? How often have I worn my own issues–child of a broken family, bullied throughout grade-school and highschool, rejected by relatives and peers alike, struggling with mental unwellness–as badges of honor, as marks of experience that somehow make my opinions and perspectives and issues “more valid?”

I’m still sorting out my anger. That’s probably why I wrote this, to be honest: because I don’t think it’s right to say that if you’re not married, with kids, in debt, and running a business then you have no right to have your problems be seen as real problems. But I will be the first to say my way of handling the issue–picking a fight in front of a bunch of other people, turning it into me vs. the grown-ups who don’t understand–did not help things. I recently finished reading Wikichurch by Pastor Steve Murrell, and in it he emphasizes how generations need to labor together, but it’s hard to when one side is saying, “You’re inexperienced, ignorant, whiny babies who have had everything handed to you because of our hard work,” while the other is all, “You’re obsolete dinosaurs who ruined everything, and now we have to fix it.”

Picking fights won’t help. Beating people on the head with the first half of 1 Timothy 4:12 won’t help. Instead, the calling is to be better, even when the truth is you are an inexperienced, ignorant twenty-five year old with a truckload of issues and bitterness and character flaws.

But hey, as Paul says in another letter, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Here’s to, hopefully, learning to set better examples.

 

Scattered Thoughts of a Sinner in Church (Come As You Are)

When I was a kid, my cousin Charlie introduced me to the comic book character “Spawn,” a man who, from my limited understanding, was “too bad for Heaven, too good(?) for Hell.” Lately, I’ve been feeling that same internal tension: too “Christian” for the world (or so a friend called me, not entirely as a compliment) but too much of a sinner for church, too riddled with doubt and disbelief and anger to fit comfortably into the padded seats of the airconditioned assembly hall. Even the way I talk and act runs counter to the poised prayerfulness and doe-eyed Christianese of the girls in Friday Youth Group, where I stopped attending after my barnacles got too obvious to hide.

I am a Christian sanctified, but far from sanitized, and honestly, I feel that the slight whiff of “worldly” about me marks me, to this church, as imposter, a wolf trying to live under the blood of the Lamb, but my teeth are too big and my claws are still sharp and oh, how I howl.

(Church, could you love me if I wasn’t perfect? Because I’m not. I am so not. Please don’t judge me, but I don’t always feel “on fire” for Jesus. Sometimes I doubt if he hears. Sometimes, my faith is in shambles. Sometimes (a lot; I even have a tracker in my BuJo), I stumble. Sometimes, I don’t pay attention to the sermon. But oh, Church, how I could not live without Christ!  Surely, that is enough?)

I’m a small group leader. I still do not understand why, and my group meets less regularly than I think is ideal, but since my name is on the roster, I get invites to the regular Leaders’ Huddles our church holds. Since my mum is a leader too, I sort-of have to go, regardless of what I feel the state of my soul is at that very moment. Two huddles ago I spent the entire meeting on the verge of tears, calligraphy-ing my frustrations in my sermon notebook: a Christian on the fringes, on the outside looking in.

Today was a good day. Today, I felt my social anxiety and situational depression was at a low enough level that I could function as my Sunday self. I sat through the leader’s huddle, convinced I could fool my church into believing that I was a model leader…and then I was unmasked.

Well, not actually. The pastor–one of my favorite pastors; I want him officiating my wedding–didn’t suddenly summon me to the front to be rebuked. Instead, he preached about Zacchaeus, that familiar story of the wee little man in the sycamore tree. Since this was a leader’s meeting, the insights were about ministering, and one point struck me:

“People, not process.”

I have this habit of building up monsters in my head. Maybe it’s the pessimist in me, but I’m always expecting the worst, waiting for the axe to fall because I am not changing fast enough. Over time and familiarity and, okay, disappointed expectations (Who knew Christian millennials could be just as cliqueish as non-Christian millennials? Duh, Frankie. Christians are people too.), I guess I turned the Church into one of those scary monsters, another self-policing institution in a world full of self-policing institutions. But with three words, that terrifying image shattered, and I was reminded of why I believe. See, as my pastor exhorted us leaders to be sensitive, kind, and compassionate with people who, perhaps, did not fit our preconceived notions of what salvation–what the desire for changed life–should look like, all I could hear was “You are welcome here.”

Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In the Bible, tax collectors are mentioned separately from sinners, are their own brand of outcast. As turncoats who aligned with the colonizers, they were considered social pariahs, and it was not kosher to associate with them.  Here was a person who longed to change, but for whom the door seemed shut.

But then Jesus asked to stay at Zacchaeus’ house, and in that moment the nature of what the church should be was established: a place of open doors, where sinners of all sorts belonged, could find acceptance, could become saints by virtue of accepting one man’s sacrifice.

My two best Christian friends–really, my two best friends–are probably the two people I know who reflect this best. Together, we three form #TeamHumanChristian, and when we get together and talk about the journey of overcoming our sins it is so easy to see God’s grace. Painting on a Sunday face makes sense, but when you come in your Monday blues and Tuesday baggage, your Friday failings and Saturday sins, it becomes so easy to discover “I am not alone.”

Everyone is growing here.  Everyone has a ways to go.

I love meeting Christian sinners, people in the trenches, fighting their flesh; those for whom the words “His grace changes everything.” are not just lyrics but a daily reality. The struggle IS real. It is. And how beautiful is the honesty.

“People, not process.” This is a home for humans, not a factory for churning out cookie-cutter models of holiness. I’d forgotten that home is where you take off the mask, not put it on, but thank God for the reminder: “Who does the Lord receive?” In Luke 15:2, the Pharisees said it so clearly, voices strangled in self-righteous horror: “SINNERS! He eats with sinners!”

The church is His dining room, and I am a sinner. I am a Christian. Those labels were always meant to coexist. Every Christian is a sinner, every saint has a past. The armor of God maybe doesn’t fit just right, still sits uneasy on my shoulders, but it has always come with the reassurance that I will grow into it, should I choose to keep walking.  That everyone else in His church is fighting to grow into it too.

People, not process. Christ met Zacchaeus at the foot of the tree. I smell of the world. I howl like a wolf. Church means come as you are, because this is where God meets you.  This is where hope resides.

“You are welcome here.”

~aRT~