faith

“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.”

[Me and My Lists] Part 6: The Heart-Break Kid

“They do not love that do not show their love. The course of true love never did run smooth. Love is a familiar. Love is a devil. There is no evil angel but Love.”

~ William Shakespeare

“He was despised and rejected,
a man of sorrows familiar with grief,
a man from whom people hide their face,
spurned and considered of no account.”

~ Isaiah 53:3

Usually, I love rain–the quiet gloom, the chill in the air, the sound of the storm as it roars then coalesces into bell-like percussion on the concrete.  It’s weather that is inherently “sad,” yet makes me happy somewhat–then again, I’ve always thought of myself as a bit like Doctor Who‘s Sally Sparrow: “Sadness is happiness for deep people.”  While I don’t actually think I’m all that deep, I suppose being under-water makes up for it, brings out the side of me that is pensive–a word that, contrary to popular belief, did not originate in Harry Potter (but I’m digressing).

Usually I love rain, but lately it’s made me feel more sad than deep, or maybe just deeply sad.  The gray over everything, walking to the convenience store without an umbrella, slipping and falling knees-first into sloshy, scummy puddles, the perpetual chill in the air that defies my sweaters–I’ve realized why this is usually called “cuddle weather,” because it’s weather like this that makes you long for arms and warmth and can make anyone, but especially a reluctant romantic, feel the pang (think your heart rumbling with stomach acid) of love-hunger, the desire to be one of a cuddling couple instead of a sopping-wet, sad-eyed singleton (not-so-fond new nickname: spinster) lost in a concrete sea.

(Apparently this bout of rain is bringing out the bad poet in me.)

To the point: lately the weather’s been making me lonely.  And while I’ve made the decision to be at peace with loneliness–flying solo, whatever you’d like to call it–the feeling isn’t as easy to swallow, compounded as it were by fatigue and the altogether selfish, visceral desire to feel a steady weight behind me, someone to lean on when the days make me feel boneless.

Someone I once lovedor thought I did, and I lean more towards “thought” because I find the mind can convince a girl of anything once it’s been given a direction–recently got himself a girlfriend, news which he himself told me one night when the loneliness was freezing my insides so that I was grasping at old friendships to stave off the chill.  I decided to let down the walls I’d built between me and my past (or, well, me and him) because I’d figured I was grown up enough to face it and deep (if not always true) friendships are a rare enough commodity that they’re difficult to just dispose of.

…But when he told me he had a girlfriend suddenly I felt like I’d lost, like a point had been scored against me and perhaps people are right, perhaps my standards are too high or I’m too conscientious and maybe I should have given happiness (or at least something that could pass well enough for it) a try when it was in my grasp?

I guess the feelings had been adding up before then.  Recently I’ve been feeling worn and frayed, half because I’ve actually been sick (bronchitis) and forcing myself to work (to my boss’ chagrin), and half because I’ve lately been uncovering layers of long-buried pride and that’s been causing a mess of problems.  I’ve gone so far as to call myself a “mental patient” at the moment, knowing full well that the thick, gnarled roots of the issues I’ve discovered mean that God will be working on me for a good, long while before I’m perhaps “ready” to consider letting someone else into my life.

The looming loneliness, a long and gray timeline stretching ahead of me, is discouraging, and many days I’ve felt prickly, preferring to push people away because it’s easier, I guess, to get used to the loneliness when you’re actually alone.  And maybe that’s an accurate assumption, but my heart never lets me get used to it for long, and suddenly I’m sitting-waiting-wishing or else marking a target on a nearby back thinking “Maybe he could be good for me?” but denying that the statement actually leaves out a critical “enough.

(Maybe he could be good enough for me?)

(Maybe I could be good enough for him?)

More than Valentines’, the rapidly-approaching holidays puts love in the air and makes it linger, and that mixed with melancholy has made me wonder what is more heartbreaking: to love wrong over and over (but to taste the moments in the beginning where, at least, it feels right), or to spend a lifetime waiting for the right love that might never come?

I know the answer, in my head, is the former.  The heart was never meant to be shattered and distributed among multiple permutations of “Mr. Right Now.”  It only has space for one best, one God’s best, because otherwise we go to them saying “Here, here is my heart–whatever is left.”  And love deserves a whole heart, broken in the way that means “tamed.”  But sometimes, while I am doing my best to break my heart, rein it in, it feels like it’s breaking, tearing, shattering, crying out for “Please, please just let me run wild, one more time, please?  Don’t you feel so alone?”

Faced with more questions than answers I literally ran to the throne–my bathroom, isolated enough from the rest of the house so that I did not have to answer any of my mother’s well-meant questions (anyway, she was asleep; it was pretty late).  There, curled up on the (lid-down) toilet, chest pressed to knees and arms clutching the marble countertop like a lifeline, I began to start crying…but chose to sing instead.

“Take my heart, Lord, it is yours.
Oh it is yours.
Oh it is yours.
Take my life, Lord, it is yours.
Oh it is yours.
Oh it is yours.”

I don’t know why I started singing Radical Love, the title track off of my church’s new worship album.  When consumed by melancholy, I often say whatever is at the top of mind.  What I can say, though is that in that moment, the lyrics felt less like praise and more like a desperate cry for help: “Take my heart, Lord.  It’s aching.  It’s your responsibility.  It’s yours.”

I made my choices, after all, because I knew that my First Love was not for forsaking, that I needed to get lost in God before I got lost “in love.”  But at that moment, in the unresponsive silence of my bathroom, all I felt like was lost.

“Take my heart, Lord, it is yours.
Oh it is yours.
Oh it is yours.
Take my life, Lord, it is yours.
Oh it is yours.
Oh it is yours.”

Lately I’ve realized that it is in that silence where God breaks your heart, tames it to trust Him even when He is intangible.  In those silences, you are presented with a choice to stay the course in a commitment to live worship, or else to run towards the nearest, most comforting alternative–the boy with the target on his back, the “right now,” the fleeting fall. And this is not a mere machination of a sadistic God–He does this because love is, and will always be a choice, to have faith in a promise instead of feelings. This is part and parcel of “breaking,” for wild creatures are never sensible, but tamed ones are strong and steady, able to see clearly or else step out in faith when seeing is impossible.

My heart was being broken, even as it was breaking; it was being taught to be strong enough to choose love in a circumstance where it felt so absent. It hurt, but pain isn’t always bad–the heart is a muscle, and muscles ache when they are torn apart to be built back stronger.

But muscles have limits. And in that bathroom, my emotions straining under the tension of questions and doubts and that gaping loneliness, I was about to reach it. So God walked in. My Man of Sorrows, acquainted acutely with grief and loneliness and that empty ache of loss, stepped in and started to sing.

Being a reluctant romantic means my mind is a vast repository of love songs, and as I clutched the counter, crying, I started to hear one in my head, in a voice calmer than my own, “I want to make you smile, whenever you’re sad…”

“I’ll miss you,
Kiss you,
Give you my coat when you are cold.
Need you,
Feed you,
Even let you hold the remote control…”

Who knew God was a fan of Adam Sandler songs?

The lyrics obviously didn’t completely apply, referring to romantic and married and mortal love, but in that moment, my straining heart stopped tugging at the reins. Loneliness, at its core, is the feeling that you are isolated, that no one cares. It was made very clear Someone did. Does.

It is a very personal God who owns my heart, and He knows when it needs breaking and when it needs assurance. Loving Him isn’t always easy, and often it means bearing the pain of breaking and being broken. But there are many moments like these, in the middle of the maelstrom, where He makes it the brokenness worth it. I cried my eyes out, but did not leave the room empty. The loneliness, while still there, suddenly seemed less all-consuming, less of a fact and more of a mere feeling.

The fact is I am not alone. That I never will be. That whatever happens, I am part of a love story, held in the arms of a God who is both terrifyingly powerful and infinitely personal. The fact is easy to forget when the feelings roll in like the roar of pouring rain, but eventually they die away, leaving a world not gloomy gray but silver. And this is why I still love the rain–because once it passes, the world looks new, and my heart is stronger at the broken places, and that looming timeline, the “lonely” road, seems like less of a wait, and more of an adventure; one that this heart can take.

Love’s not easy, but it’s worth it.

~aRT~