Christian living

Before I was lost (or, notes on broken relationships and being the toxic person).

Here’s a confession: quarantine is not driving me crazy.

Certainly, it has made the craziness worse at times, but I was struggling long before the iron hammer of ECQ fell. I’ve alluded to this enough times in the past few blogs that I don’t think it’ll feel like it’s come out of nowhere when I admit that 2019 was hard.

In many ways, 2020 just feels like an extension of, well, things being hard. It’s not that I was prepared for the coronavirus crisis so much as it just felt like adding injury to injury. Like a “joke” I cracked after reading an article in The Economist. The article said, and I quote:

The longer a quarantine goes on, the greater the effect on people’s mental health. Another study, which also looked at the impact of sars, found that those who were quarantined for more than ten days were significantly more likely to display symptoms of PTSD than those confined for fewer than ten days.

– “Only Connect,” The Economist

To this, I replied: I already have PTSD, and, at this point, I don’t think I can notice if it’s getting worse.

(Brief explanation of something I may get into at a later date: Currently, my therapist–who is near the top of my very short list of favorite people–has diagnosed me with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Another therapist–referred to me because I wanted more talk therapy and less meds–thinks that diagnosis is bollocks and I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder…but before I could see that guy, quarantine happened.

Maybe that’s for the best.)

In short, I’ve been struggling to keep my head above water long before the events of Day 29 of Quarantine. To the point that struggling almost felt like second nature.

Around September of 2019, struggling was easy, almost noble. I was very into journaling then, privately mapping my emotions and thoughts in frantic fountain pen scribble in order to publicly appear like I was calm and wise and wisely put-together. I remember dressing up a lot, and looking back–not even very far back, just at my recent quarantine costumes–I’m beginning to see a correlation between how elaborate my outfits get and how stable I think I have to appear versus how stable I actually am.

I think I managed to keep up that illusion of stability until around November. The meds helped, but in the end my regular end-of-year seasonal depression won out.

Because I can’t trust myself to keep it together long enough to be earnest…I’ll keep it short instead: I lost a lot of close relationships in one fell swoop around August of 2019. Chief among them was the “break up” with a close friend and creative partner who, to me, was something like family.

Some days, I can find it in myself to be angry at him, at them. But most days, I’m sane enough to admit the part I played, admit my toxicity.

Most days, though, I’m still crazy enough to blame myself for most of it, even though my remaining friends (and my therapist, and the office life coach) tell me not to. Something will trigger it–a song, a word, a name on my Facebook news feed–and I’ll crumble, remembering what I lost and what I did to deserve being lost and Just. How. Lost. I feel without…everything.

Hillsong has this song called “As You Find Me,” and its debut performance was led by this guy called Tulele Faletolu. He was the lead singer on Hillsong’s smash hit (one of many smash hits), Still: “I will be still and know you are God.”

Except that Tulele hadn’t been still and known that God was God. In the time between Still and As You Find Me, he’d backslid after his brother had passed away. He became an alcoholic, chasing shadows and drowning answers elsewhere until, inevitably–because God is inevitable like that; He has dragged me back to Him kicking and screaming and swearing at Him to Let me go!–God brought him back.

So he came back.

And he was content, just to be back. No longer a worship leader, but home, in the way the Prodigal Son told his Father he’d be happy to be a servant in the house he was once upon a time supposed to own half of.

One year (or so?) later, Joel Houston writes a song for a Hillsong Conference. He pulls Tulele Faletolu, former worship leader, aside…and asks him to lead the debut performance of that song, live on a conference stage.

Tulele reads the lyrics and asks Joel, “Did you write this for me?”

If you listen to that first live recording, you can hear just how personal this song is for Tulele Faletolu. How earnest he sounds. You can hear it in the way he sings that first chorus, the slight wobble in his voice when he sings:

“I know I don’t deserve this kind of love.
But somehow this kind of love is who You are.”

You can hear it when, in the second chorus, he literally ad libs a long and mournful “I know!” and it’s beautiful and heartbreaking and no one but Tulele could have lead that song the way he did.

Sometimes we have to walk through the valleys of shadow, is all I’m saying.

When I lost…what I thought was everything, last year…that song kept me afloat. It spoke to me when I felt the most unlovable, like I could never get better, like I was doomed to destroy everything I touched.

Disgraced, asked to step away, without my beloved Ahia who had talked me off so many ledges in the years we’d known each other–corresponding to the peak of my years-long quarter-life crisis–the only thing I could repeat, for months and months and months as I got better then worse then better then worse again, were the words that Tulele Faletolu sang:

I was found before I was lost.
I was Yours before I was not.
Grace to spare for all my mistakes,
And that part just wrecks me.

And that part just wrecks me.

“Grace to spare for all my mistakes.” The thing about God, I’ve learned, is that when you think the world won’t, can’t forgive you, God will forgive you SO MUCH and SO HARD…that the world slowly ceases to matter.

I have no doubt the people I’ve had to leave behind think badly of me, have decided I was worth letting go of because, truth be told, the person I was then…she really was worth letting go of. She was toxic.

And I am still that girl, many, many times. There are days, when I look in the mirror, that I can see her. Days when I am constantly teetering on the verge of collapse. Days when I hiss and snarl and snap at the people I love most, pushing them away. Days when I fail to be a good human, much less a good Christian. Days that it’s hard to crawl back from, though I must, I must, because I said I would be better.

Each time, then, I repeat: “Grace to spare for all my mistakes.”

I do not excuse myself, but I give myself the permission to keep moving forward.

God has grace to spare for all my mistakes and so, as hard as it is, I decide to continue living with myself, believing that same Grace will make me worth that choice to continue.

Contrary to what seems like popular belief, it isn’t unholy to be happy. The verse in John (I smirk at the irony) reads, “For I have come to give you life, and life to the full.”

In Christian circles, there’s this thing called pruning: God taking you on a journey and taking away the things that weigh your steps down as you go. As the word suggests, it isn’t pleasant, which is maybe where the whole “Christianity is misery-inducing” shtick comes from.

I mean, it’s not wrong. Heck, I’ve written a lot of stuff in that vein. But. There’s a but.

Christianity, or maybe you want to think of it as growing up/maturing/finding yourself, is painful. You lose things you wish you didn’t. You lose yourself, for crying out loud. But after everything, Christianity (or growing up or maturing or finding yourself or however you want to refer to it) asks that you don’t be afraid to ask for joy.

My boss, Guita, once told me (in the throes of my nth mental breakdown that week), “You have to believe you can be happy too.

There’s this weird thing I’ve noticed, after playing Christian music on loop for the past few weeks in order to stay sane. It’s that, whether its hymns or contemporary Christian music, in general the saddest-sounding songs are the happiest ones lyrically. These songs start on a minor key, dark and slow and sad, and build to a painful, unresolved, but ultimately hopeful chorus. One that has no answers, but somehow doesn’t need them.

I circle back to the song I sang on Day 29 of quarantine, as I was falling apart for the more-than-29th time. There are no answers to singing, “You are good, good, always.” There are no answers…but there is a beautiful defiance.

When you feel like the world is a dumpster fire and you are burning along with it, declaring “You’re never going to let me down.” is just plain stubborn, rebellious hope. I am worn and broken and sad as all get out, but I am not beaten. The world cannot defeat this hope, because God has overcome the world.

I am sad, but to (literal?) hell with sad. “He is good, good, always.” He was good before I was lost. He is good even while I am lost. He will be good after I am done with this “lost” business, whenever that will be.

Grace to spare for all my mistakes.

I’ll probably make a lot more mistakes this quarantine season. And after quarantine season. I’m going to need a lot of grace.

Thank God He has enough–more than enough–to spare.

“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. 

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.”