Christian living

“The Faith That Lives In You Also.” (A Family Testimony)

But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.

Exodus 20:6

My paternal grandmother passed away in 2014, but she remained a constant presence in my life, even after her death. More specifically, it was the unforgiveness I had for her that haunted me.

To say that my grandmother–Amah–and I had a difficult relationship is an understatement. Though I was her first grandchild, and long-awaited granddaughter, I often felt that she was disappointed in me. After all, my father was the black sheep of the family, and with my hot temper, emotional nature, and tendency to talk back, I reminded her a lot of her son. As I grew older, I would notice this more and more. Playful scolding little by little turned into disapproving lectures on whatever facet of my behavior she was displeased with that day. I grew to expect, and resent, the constant sermons, which would often escalate into arguments as I would try to defend myself from her claim that I was becoming more and more like my dad. At one point, my Amah even told my mother to be careful not to love me too much, because I might hurt her the way my father had hurt my grandmother.

Looking back, I can clearly see that these were the actions of a hurting heart, and that Amah was simply doing her best to help me and my mother. However, at the time, all I felt was rejection. My relationship with my father was also quite bad, and I was terrified of ending up like him, so it hurt every time my grandmother brought up that possibility. Her certainty felt like a vote of no confidence, and I clearly saw the distance between mother and son being mirrored in her actions towards me.

Things got a little better when I became a Christian at the age of thirteen. My grandmother was a devout follower of Christ, and had served as a missionary in refugee camps when she was younger. She had such a heart for the poor and the lost that she bought land to build into a farm, church community, and Christian retreat house called The Lord’s Garden, growing fruit and flowers there that she sold to fund the ministry. Until the end of her life, she was praying fervently for the salvation of her friends and relatives, admonishing them on her deathbed to come to Christ. Amah was passionate about the Lord, and it was her long-cherished wish that at least one of her grandchildren would carry on her legacy of faith. I remember many conversations she had with my mother where she talked giddily of her belief that one of my cousins had received the calling to serve God. Her joy at that prospect stood in stark contrast to the fear and reluctance she often seemed to have when talking about me. I have no doubt that she prayed for me often, and admit that she had good reason to–the years immediately before and after I became a Christian were turbulent ones, as God was working to tame my rebel heart. She seemed comforted somewhat by the fact that I was now actively going to church and being discipled, but then again my father himself had been a preacher in the mountains before he’d backslid.

Once I got into college, landing a scholarship to a good university and racking up academic awards–contrast from my messy high school years–Amah seemed to become less cautious when it came to her treatment of me. Around that time as well, having undergone my church’s “Victory Weekend” and constant discipleship from my spiritual family, I was also trying to make an effort to understand her better and act more loving and forgiving towards her, hoping that my emotions might follow my actions. The result of this was that we managed to make a sort-of peace before her death, even having long conversations where I spoke to her about my faith journey. She seemed satisfied that my walk with God was rooted in more than just appearances, and in the year before she passed away, she seemed almost proud of me, while I also thought that I had forgiven her.

Little did I know, I was still nurturing the hurt and bitterness in me from those years of being held at a distance, and when she died–a few months after my father, her son, had suffered a massive stroke that he struggled to recover from–all that hurt came pouring out. From a bubbly, if emotionally erratic, people-person, I suddenly found myself becoming withdrawn and depressed, prone to fits of anger, fear, panic, and sadness that seemed to come out of nowhere. It felt like my grandmother’s old predictions were coming true, as this shift in personality started to take its toll on my professional and personal life, such that I was nearly fired from my first job–where I had been and still was a star performer–because my officemates found me, emotionally, too difficult to work with. Finally, I was diagnosed in April of 2017 as having dysthymia, also known as “persistent depressive disorder.”

Living with dysthymia has been humbling, and has taught me a lot about grace. As someone who used to pride herself on being self-reliant and getting things done, I have now become someone who openly gets by due to the patience and support of a lot of people. It has also, in its own way, been eye-opening, as I’ve become more aware of the negative thoughts, feelings, fears, and mindsets that form the undercurrent of my depressive episodes. Chief among this is the fear that my worth is based entirely on “making it” and “making good,” and that failing to do so renders me unworthy of receiving love. Because of it, I have tended to push people away the moment I sense their displeasure, even going so far as to outright scream at my mother that I knew she would leave me in the end, just as Amah had left my dad. 

Just as Amah had left me.

It became very obvious, then, that I still had issues about my grandmother.

Let me be clear: I believe my grandmother loved my dad as best she could. Their relationship was also very difficult, and it is not my place to expound on that, nor is it my place to speculate or judge. What I can say is that I had clearly not forgiven my grandmother for those years when she had withdrawn from me out of fear of what I might have become. That unforgiveness fueled my insecurities, which then affected the way I related to other people and lived my life. My bitterness was causing me to self-destruct.

Thankfully, God is merciful. Even in my brokenness, he still allowed me the opportunity to minister to others, and, in late 2018, in the midst of a long season of pruning, I received what I believed was my own ministry calling. While I am not yet 100% certain what that path will look like, I can say that God has already clearly started moving, such that during this year’s prayer and fasting, I had several people actively praying for and encouraging me regarding a confirmation of my calling.

Just last Christmas, I had a long talk with my mother about how I still found it difficult to forgive my grandmother, even after so much time had passed and even after understanding where she was coming from. I explained to her that I still heard Amah’s words in my head, could still feel her disapproval every time I failed or proved unstable. I admitted that on some level, I still felt condemned as her embarrassment, and wanted some form of justification to prove that was not the case. I knew these were stupid requests: my grandmother was dead, and could not be expected to apologize from beyond the grave. I was the only one left with the baggage, and so it would ultimately be my choice to let go. Still, feeling unable to do so, I decided I’d leave that up to God, asking him to help me forgive.

I did not expect the form that help would take.

On the last day of prayer and fasting, as we were praying for personal breakthrough and spiritual direction, I sensed God telling me something rather surprising: “You are your grandmother’s reward.” I had not thought about my grandmother at all throughout prayer and fasting, being focused on praying for great faith and the breakthrough that was my season of pruning. In fact, I had pretty much forgotten about asking God for help to forgive her, and yet here God was with the strangest answer: “You are your grandmother’s reward.”

The Bible is full of examples of faith as a legacy, of generations reaping the rewards of one person’s faith. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob…the list goes on. These were not perfect people, not by any means–Abraham often acted out of fear, Isaac played favorites, and Jacob was an outright deceiver–but when the time came, they responded to God in faith, and God rewarded them with the blessing of their descendants. It didn’t register at first, but soon the clarity sunk in: for all of my grandmother’s flaws, she had been a woman of great faith, and great love for God, and God was calling me her reward, designating me the fruit of her faithfulness.

Instead of being offended that “my” calling was a result of the faith of a woman who had rejected me, I was awed by God’s wisdom and moved by his grace. In giving my grandmother her reward, he honored her faith despite her mistakes. In naming me the reward, he undid the distance our fractured relationship had created, reconciling us through the bond of a shared faith. My Amah’s fondest wish had been for at least one of her grandchildren to want to take up her fight for the lost. Now, I was that grandchild, the source of her joy, my faith seen as the fruit of hers. I could feel only gratitude and wonder at how God had managed to redeem the damage done, perfectly balancing justice, mercy, and grace.

I’m sure that my battle with bitterness isn’t 100% over. Forgiveness, I know, is a daily choice, and one I honestly should have made long ago. Still, I won’t lie: this makes that choice so much easier for me. I am in awe of God’s mercy, that instead of condemning me for being bitter, he would choose to comfort me with a term such as reward, while reminding me at the same time that my grandmother really did love me as best she could, and that my faith is as much the fruit of hers, as it is a product of God’s all-consuming grace.

More than anything else, this breakthrough reflects that God really is faithful, even when we make mistakes. My grandmother was fearful. I was resentful. Yet we both held fast to the same God, and in the end that God made all things right.

I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.

2 Timothy 1:5 (NIV)

Written as a testimony for #ENFast2019. 

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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.”

Seeing Wonder: On Engaging, Grace, and Believing in Love

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Source: Warner Brothers Pictures

Every year, our church does a series of sermons on the idea of discipleship and engaging our community. It’s a regular “tradition” in the church calendar, varying only in the Bible verses we’re led to reflect on in our small groups. This year, we pulled from the life of Peter, with the topic of engaging being linked to Peter’s ministering to Cornelius, the first Gentile convert. Our small group material in particular focused on Acts 10:9-16, which is about the vision Peter has before he’s asked to see Cornelius. (TL;DR, In the vision, Jesus reveals that we are called to reach out to all people, building on the Great Commission of “…going into all the world.”)  

It was a really great message, but while my fellow small group mates seemed absolutely hyped on God’s mission, ready to go out there and reach out to people and do some good in the world, all I felt was…resistance. 

Confession: I have never been good at engaging, and every year when my church does this message I sort of…tune out.  I tell myself that, as an introvert, God surely doesn’t intend for me to actually go out there and directly reach out to people.  Nah, let them come to me; I won’t go first. I never go first.

That night, in small group, I realised these were all excuses I was telling myself. The reason for my reluctance wasn’t so much that I was an introvert. No, it was something that ran a little deeper than that.

It was because, when I was twenty-three, I decided I didn’t like people.

This wasn’t some sort of impulsive thought: “Oh, I don’t think I like people today.”  No, this was a conscious choice on my part: I would not, could not like people, and I would not trust or engage with them. It helped that I was a fan of Game of Thrones, which is extremely good at portraying the dark, twisted roots of human motivation. It also helped that around that time, everyone was talking about the fate of Jon Snow: stabbed by people he trusted, by his “brothers,” and left to die.

Something that felt a lot like that—and I won’t go into details—happened to me.  This wasn’t the first time, but it might have been the worst time.  And so, after filing a very long leave from work and stewing alone in my room for several afternoons, I made my decision: I did not like people.

And people did not deserve to know me.

From that moment, I made a conscious effort to start…closing myself off. Some of it made sense: I get a bit anxious in large crowds, am not fond of small talk, and do not like partying.  Again: introvert.  But other things had less to do with introversion and more to do with the satisfaction of pushing away people I did not trust. Who had hurt me (consciously or unconsciously). Who I believed would hurt me again. Years of being bullied in grade school and high school had already made me a little wary of friendships, but this was the first time I was outright refusing them, putting up walls and putting on masks.  It made me feel like I was taking control of my life.  It made me feel good.  And if I ever felt isolated, well, it was better to stand alone than to be fighting alongside and for people who, in the next breath, could be turning their swords on me.

Essentially, I was enacting a closed-door policy on my life, which, as you can guess, does not go along well with the whole Christian commission to engage with the community and care for people.  But I figured, I’d find ways to get around it. I served in church. I still held small groups. I volunteered for orgs that did good work. And I had friends, people I would talk to online even if I avoided meeting them in person.  And I cared about these friends…

…but not as much as I cared about myself.  Real talk: if any of them were in the way of a passing truck, I do not trust that I’d have pushed them out of the way.  If it was them or me, I might have chosen me.

The world—and Game of Thrones—paints this “me first” mentality as wise.  Encourages you to lose your faith in people, to “…kill the girl and let the woman be born.”  Only the naive believe in the fundamental good of humanity; growing up means realising the truth, that man is wolf to other man and that you can trust no one because the more you care, the weaker you are. The more you love, the weaker you are. Because one day the inevitable will happen: those closest to you will either turn on you or leave. Or both.

And so I did not engage, because I did not want to care about people who would turn on me or leave. I kept people at arms length, stayed behind walls, ate at my desk, refused invitations with the bright and beaming smile that was both sword and shield to me.  This was self-defence, I told myself, even as it felt—and kept feeling—wrong. 

Small group was the first blow to this worldview.  The second was Wonder Woman.

Full disclosure: while I am a geek, I’m not a comic book geek.  I have watched zero of the Marvel blockbusters (despite some of them garnering critical acclaim), and, up until recently, had the same batting average for DC. But when a post came out talking about how Wonder Woman seemed like it was being set up to fail at the box office (and thus prove stories about empowered women did not sell), my baby feminist heart could not handle it. I told my mum we had to book tickets to watch this movie when we came out, which we promptly did.

It was, in a word, a wonder.

While I have watched/read female-centered franchises before (I was a huge fan of The Hunger Games, and in Game of Thrones I cheered when the last season featured strong female-centric plotlines), Wonder Woman was…different.  The movie felt so unapologetically idealistic, so full of empathy and tenderness even as it celebrated the superhuman strength of its lead.  It was the total antithesis of the gritty cynicism that seemed the highlight of current male superhero mythology and even my mainstay of GoT.  Wonder Woman did not sugarcoat how dark people could be—“Be careful in the world of men, Diana,” says Queen Hippolyta, early in the film, “They do not deserve you.”—but without completely absolving mankind of that darkness, it still presented a reason to hope.  Yes, people are cruel and easily-corrupted, cowardly and twisted and undeserving, but, as Diana says in the climax of the film, “It’s not about [what people] deserve. It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.”

Despite the fact that I am an avowed cynic, I do believe in love. In fact, that belief is at the core of who I say I am: as a  Christian, my very existence is founded on the idea of grace, of receiving a love I did not deserve.  I lash out at the people I think hurt me, but the truth is I too am just as cruel, just as unforgiving, just as—or rather, more so–twisted and bitter and dark…and Someone I did not deserve came to fight for me.  To save me, even when I was not worthy of saving.  The very essence of Christianity is that no one deserves anything: love is a gift. Love is a grace. And when you receive it, you can’t help but give it away.

“Only Love will truly save the world.” says Diana. In a world that is hurting and broken and twisted every which way, Love is humanity’s great hope. And while it is tempting to keep safe from the world, stay behind my walls to avoid getting hurt, “How will I be if I stay?”

It was this message that hit home for me and sent me out of the theatre in tears. The truth is, considering the darkness we are capable of, none of us really deserves kindness or grace or an open hand. But it really isn’t about “deserving.”  Instead, it’s about what we believe in, and what I believe in—what I quite loudly shout that I believe in—is Love. A Love big enough to save the world, to cover over a multitude of dark and twisted and awful. A Love that was big enough to save me from myself, and to keep on saving me.

It’s easy to think of yourself as a victim, when you’re hurt, but the truth is the world is hurting. “We all have our own battles,” says another character in Wonder Woman. We all have our own darkness, and at the core of that darkness is pain.  The difference lies in what you decide to do with it.

And, as another of my all-time favourite characters, the Twelfth Doctor, puts it, the right thing to do is this:

“…do you know what you do with all that pain? Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight till it burns your hand, and you say this: No one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will have to feel this pain. Not on my watch!

That is what engaging means: taking the pain, holding it tight, and deciding to fight it instead of letting it own you. And the way to fight it is Love, is sharing Love instead of keeping it all to yourself, hiding it behind walls and never letting anyone close. 

There are people I say I care about. There are people out there who I say matter to me. And there are people out there I don’t like. Who i don’t want to care about. Either way, they all need what I know: Love.  And so, even if the prospect terrifies me, even if I’m not some superhuman with armour and a shield and a magic lasso, I leave my island. I step out behind the wall. I stretch out my hand, and I let my guard down, and I have faith that, despite the pain…I will see grace.

I will see Wonder.

~aRT~

P.S.

For more comprehensive (and awesome) reviews/reflections on Wonder Woman, check out:

https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/5/30/15709572/wonder-woman-review-gadot
https://www.bustle.com/p/wonder-womans-message-of-love-cant-be-repeated-enough-right-now-62157 – Got the blog’s featured image from here, by way of Google Image Search.
http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/wonder-woman-is-the-hero-we-need-but-maybe-not-the-hero-we-deserve-9481938
http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2017/june/why-we-need-wonder-woman.html