Trust God. Tell Your Story.

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They crowded around me, some with tears in their eyes, waiting to talk to me. I had wondered if my words would mean anything to them. I had spoken of the rejection and pain, fear and self-doubt, bullying and isolation that had marked my early years. These wholesome suburban teenagers had experienced a childhood wholly different from mine.

Or had they?

As I was preparing my talk, I assumed this group of teens, predominantly young men, would have nothing in common with me. I was a brown-skinned handicapped woman in her late 40s; they were clean-cut athletic teenagers. Would they even care what I had to say?

The previous week, I had spoken to a group of older, mostly brown-skinned, inner-city women who had suffered great injustices in their lives. I knew they would identify with my story. But I didn’t expect this group to relate to me.

I had expected these young adults, who seemed to have everything together, to dismiss me immediately.

But as I spoke, I realized how little I knew of what they had endured. How much I had prejudged them based on appearance. As their eyes met mine, the most unlikely teenagers were the most moved. I was reminded again that all of us carry pain, but some of us stuff it down so deep that no one would ever guess that it was there. But in reality, we all have our scars.

I had prayed much more for this talk than I had prepared. I had felt inadequate and unqualified and I had asked God to pull something relevant out of my story for the young people who were present. But when I sat down to write, the words wouldn’t come.

And so I prayed more earnestly, asking God to help me be open to His Spirit. In the moment. To not feel that I had to rely on my own wisdom and my own words but to trust Him and His words.

That kind of trust terrifies me.

I am comfortable when each word I plan to say is carefully scripted. Then I can deliver my message exactly as it is written. No uncertainty and no mistakes. Not that I am particularly eloquent, but it is safer to craft every phrase deliberately.

It is frightening to be open to what God wants. To trust that He will give me what I need at the right time.  But that’s often when I see God most clearly. Because I’m delivering His words and not my own.

As I started speaking to these young people, the Lord guided my words. As I looked into their eyes, I saw they knew pain too. It was well concealed, but just below their cool exterior was a jumble of doubts, fears and pain.

I saw the same doubts, fears and pain I had experienced decades ago. And some that I still feel today.

We are all looking for the same thing. Love. Acceptance. Friends. To fit in. And many of us aren’t sure if we’ll measure up. Find what we’re looking for. Or feel like we belong.

And today, with social media, everything is amplified. We know when we’re not invited to the party that our friends are going to. We know which friends are hanging out together without us. We know what other people are doing on Saturday night, as we sit looking at our Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook feeds.

We know what it feels like to be left out. Sometimes we can shake it off, but other times it reverberates through our head. Variations of the idea, “There’s something wrong with me. Everyone else has more friends than I do. I’m not good enough.”

Most of us have felt inadequate at some point.

Some of my own insecurities were forged decades ago in my childhood. When kids laughed at me, and made fun of me and called me a cripple. That meant I wasn’t good enough.

Only as an adult, when I saw those lies for what they were, could I let go of the past. When I allowed God’s love and grace to rewrite who I thought I was. When I saw that I am defined by who I am in Christ. And He says that I am loved. Accepted. Beautiful.

I poured out my thoughts to these high schoolers, unsure of how they would respond. Would they be able to look past the specifics of my story and bridge it to their own? But after I finished, I had no doubts.

God had used my past, and the pain I had long wanted to hide, to reach these students. My stories of rejection and the shame that had distanced me from my peers were the links that bound us together. Because we all feel like outsiders sometimes.

I do not know what others need. I do not know how I can help anyone, how my story can possibly be relevant to anyone else. But the longer I live, the better I see, that God uses my struggles and my weaknesses, my pain and my humiliation, my insecurities and my failures, more powerfully than He uses my gifts and my strengths.

The apostle Paul knew that all too well, as the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, because my power is made perfect in weakness.”

We all have pain. We all have hurts. We all feel inadequate. But through those experiences, God refines us and comforts us and gives us a testimony of His power in our weakness.

Don’t be afraid of your story. Don’t believe your story is only relevant to those who are just like you. Or have been through what you have. Or who think like you do.

And don’t prejudge who needs to hear about God’s work in your life. Let the Lord guide you. Trust Him. Even when it’s scary. Even when it means exposing your insecurities and struggles leaving you vulnerable, because that’s often when you’ll make the deepest connection.

You have a story. All of us do.

Tell your story. 

 

 

 

photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar

Begging God

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Last week, in the middle of giving a talk, I almost broke down. As I was recounting how I begged God to save the life of my son, I felt my chest tighten. I remembered how desperate I felt and how sure I was that my begging would compel God to do what I asked.

After all, He is God. Nothing is impossible for Him. I had never wanted anything so much in my life, and it was almost inconceivable that God would say “no” to such an earnest request.

But God did say “no.” Even as I was pleading for my son’s life, he was dying. How does a good God let that happen?

Over my life, I’ve begged God for a number of things for which He has said “no.” As a child, I begged God to heal me. In my twenties, I begged God to repair a broken romantic relationship. And several years ago, I begged God to bring my husband back.

I wondered even as I was speaking, “Why doesn’t God answer my deepest prayers?”

Now don’t get me wrong, I had thought through my theology before delivering my message. My talk was about finding God in the middle of our mess. The point of my talk was that God uses all things in our lives for His glory.

But as I was saying the words, “I begged God…” I was flooded with the emotions that I had felt decades earlier. Once again I felt the raw pain of begging God and wondering why He had not answered me the way I wanted.

At the time, I had felt abandoned. At the time it seemed as though God didn’t care at all.

But as I was speaking, the Holy Spirit overwhelmed me. He used the words that I was saying, and had written days earlier, to minister to me in that moment. He reminded me of the truth that while He always hears and answers our prayers, His answers may look wholly different from what we expect. But even as He gives us painful struggles to endure, He carries us through them.

I was addressing a group of urban women, many of whom had known extraordinary hardship. As I was talking, I was thankful for my own suffering, even if it wasn’t as profound as theirs. My words were not trite sayings that I had read but rather honest words that I had lived.

In my own life, I have been much more moved by hearing someone’s experience with God than hearing them recite facts about God.

At the end of my talk, I had an overwhelming sense of God’s purpose. I was overcome by a love for Christ and a joy in what He had done in my life. And in that roomful of women, who had suffered so much, His presence was tangible. There were tears and repentance. There was hope and a renewed love for Jesus. I was standing on holy ground, grateful and amazed to be witnessing this profound work of the Spirit.

As I listened to these precious accounts, I was given a tiny glimpse of the glorious work God was doing in all of us.

I saw that His refusals were His mercies; they had shaped me. Every “no” drove me deeper into the heart of God, deeper into His word, deeper into prayer.

I was thankful for each “no”, each trial and hardship, each affliction that drove me to my knees.

In my finite wisdom, I would never have chosen the path I have walked. It has been hard and gritty and none of my struggles have had simple happy endings, tied up neatly with a bow.

But as I listened to these women’s stories, I realized that God had chiseled and hammered me, said “no” when I begged for “yes”, offered His presence when I wanted His presents, because He had a much bigger plan for me. Part of it was telling people about His goodness in the midst of suffering.

I am thankful I do not decide my future. God does.

Left to myself, my journey would have been smooth sailing, in spiritually shallow waters. My life would have been filled with temporary pleasures and permanent emptiness.

So today, when I think back over the instances when God said “no,” despite my begging, I am thankful. Though some “no’s” have left an ache in my soul, I would not seek to undo them. In part because I often see purpose in them, but more importantly because I know that He will always do what is best for me. Even when I don’t understand why, I trust He has a purpose in my pain.

In Walking with God through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller quotes John Newton saying,

“All shall work together for good; everything is needful that he sends; nothing can be needful that he withholds… Yield to his prescriptions, and fight against every thought that would represent it as desirable to be permitted to choose for yourself. When you cannot see your way, be satisfied that he is your leader.”

Everything is needful that He sends. Nothing can be needful that He withholds.

God knows what I need and has chosen for me what I would not have chosen for myself, given my limited perspective on life and my penchant for my own comfort. But if I had God’s perspective, and knew what He knows, I would undoubtedly choose what He has given me.

It has all been necessary.

 

 

 

photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar

 

 

What if the Worst Happens?

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I found myself growing fearful. Not a heart-stopping all-encompassing fear, but the kind of constant gnawing that creeps into your bones when you hear bad news or see something going awry. When you extrapolate the discouraging trends of the present into the future and assume things will never change. When you think about where you’re headed, and feel your stomach tighten.

Questions lingered in the back of my mind. What if I continue on this path? What if nothing ever gets better? What if the worst happens?

What if. I’ve spent a lifetime considering the “what if’s.” Those questions have a way of destroying my peace, leaving me feeling hopeless. When negative possibilities loom before me, I can’t seem to rein my thoughts in. Just asking “what if” unsettles me.

People in the Bible were unsettled by “what if” questions too. When he was told to lead the Israelites, Moses asked God, “What if they don’t believe me?” Abraham’s servant asked about Isaac’s future wife, “What if the young woman refuses to come with me?” Joseph’s brothers asked, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us?”  All of them wondered what was going to happen if things didn’t turn out the way they planned. Just like we do.

We all face a staggering array of “what ifs?” Some are minor inconveniences while others have life-altering repercussions. What if I lose my job? What if I never have children? What if I get cancer? What if my spouse dies? What if my husband never loves me? What if my child never believes in Jesus?

The uncomfortable truth is, any of those things could happen. No one is free from tragedy or pain. There are no guarantees of an easy life. For any of us. Ever.

I was considering this sobering reality on my silent retreat a few weeks ago. Over the course of several days, I had brought numerous longings and requests before the Lord. I wanted these fulfilled. When would God do it? As I penned my thoughts, I felt that familiar fear gripping me.

The question echoed in my mind: What if my deepest longings are never met and my nightmares come true? I didn’t even want to entertain that possibility.

As I sat in the empty chapel poring over my Bible, I sensed God asking the same question I have wrestled with for decades. “Am I enough? Even if those frightening things happen, am I sufficient?” Each time that question had come up in the past, I’d pushed it out of my mind. But in the stillness of the chapel, kneeling in front of the cross, I knew I needed to face this. I sensed God whispering again, “Vaneetha, am I enough?”

“If none of your dreams come true, am I enough? If your health spirals downward and you end up in an institution, am I enough? If your children rebel and never walk closely with me, am I enough? If you never remarry and never feel loved by a man again, am I enough? If your ministry doesn’t flourish and you never see fruit from it, am I enough? If your suffering continues and you don’t see purpose in it, am I enough?

I wish I could have automatically responded, “Yes Lord, you are enough.” But I struggled. Profoundly. The weight of those questions felt crushing. I didn’t want to give up my dreams, surrender those things that were dear to me, relinquish what I felt entitled to.

I reflected on the past few days – much of it centered on the things I wanted. My unwritten contract with God (that He never signed) where I promise to do my part if He fulfills my longings. I reluctantly admitted that part of my desire to be faithful was rooted in my expectation of a payback. Didn’t God owe me something? But what if I didn’t get it? What if my dreams were all left undone?

I knew I needed to relinquish my desires, but I was incapable of doing it myself. I begged God for help. To release my expectations. To let go of my dreams and embrace His. To not predicate my obedience on His gifts.

I sobbed as I opened my hands, filled with my dreams, and placed them on the altar. I didn’t want to love God for what He could do for me. I wanted to love God for who He was. To worship Him because He was God and not because I expected something in return.

God’s presence overwhelmed me as I knelt in the semi-darkness. I was reminded that we have something far better than a reassurance that our dreaded “what if’s” won’t happen. We have the assurance that even if they do happen, God will be there in the midst of them. He will carry us. He will comfort us. He will tenderly care for us. God doesn’t promise us a trouble-free life. But He does promise that He will be there in the midst of our sorrows.

Kutless’ song Even If speaks to this important truth which is echoed throughout the Bible. The chorus says,

Even if the healing doesn’t come
And life falls apart
And dreams are still undone
You are God You are good
Forever faithful One
Even if the healing
Even if the healing doesn’t come

In the book of Daniel, Daniel’s three friends Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were not guaranteed deliverance. And just before Nebuchadnezzar delivered them to the fire, they offered some of the most courageous words ever spoken. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it…But even if he does not, we want you to know that we will not serve your gods…”

Even if. Even if the worst happens, God’s grace is sufficient. Those three young men faced the fire without fear because they knew that no matter the outcome, it would be the best for them, the best for their nation, and the best for God’s glory.

They did not ask “what if” the worst happened. They were satisfied knowing that “even if” the worst happened, God would take care of them.

At the end of Habakkuk, we see another beautiful picture of “even if.” Habakkuk wants deliverance for his people and pleads with God to save them. But he closes the book saying:

“Even if the fig tree does not bloom and the vines have no grapes,
even if the olive tree fails to produce
and the fields yield no food,
even if the sheep pen is empty
and the stalls have no cattle—

Even then,
I will be happy with the Lord.
I will truly find joy in God, who saves me.
The Lord Almighty is my strength.
He makes my feet like those of a deer.
He makes me walk on the mountains.”(GW)

Even if. Those two simple words can take the fear out of life. Replacing “what if” with “even if” is one of the most liberating exchanges we can ever make. We trade our irrational fears of an uncertain future for the loving assurance of an unchanging God. We see that even if the very worst happens, God will carry us. He will still be good. And He will never leave us.

Christa Wells’s song, Even Though, illustrates this beautiful principle as well. She says “Even though we lose it all, we’ll not be lost, we’ll not be shaken. Behold, this love of God has ransomed us, He’s ransomed us. Even though.”

God’s love has ransomed us. We have nothing to fear. Even if everything falls apart, we will never walk alone.

 

 

But I Can’t Feed 4000 People…

fish vaneetha

I was overwhelmed.

Too many things to do. Too many articles to write. Too many needs to meet. And not enough time or resources for any of it.

I had woken up early to get started.  Reluctantly, I had skipped my quiet time and jumped right into my work. I was quite productive, working at a rapid pace. But at the day’s end, when I looked at my to-do list, there was still so much left to do.

I panicked all over again, unsure how I was going to get it all finished. I went to bed with a heavy heart. The tasks ahead of me were overwhelming.

The next morning I was tempted to do the same thing, and skip my quiet time. But the Lord tenderly drew me back to my little devotional corner. I needed to spend time with Him. I figured I had a few minutes to spare, so I opened my Bible to my bookmarked place in Matthew 16.

The passage I read stopped me in my tracks.

Jesus had just fed the 4000 and gotten into the boat with the disciples. When they had crossed over to the other side, the disciples realized that they’d forgotten to bring bread for themselves and started blaming each other. Jesus reminded them that they had just witnessed a miracle, fed 4000 people, and even gathered up excess. All with no bread of their own.

The truth of those words and the miracle that Jesus had just performed landed heavy on me. The disciples had a huge task in front of them – feeding 4000 hungry people, when they had no resources of their own. They brought nothing themselves except for their willingness to obey Jesus. That’s all they needed. God did the rest.

In the end, the disciples didn’t feed 4000 people—Jesus did.

God reminded me that I wasn’t going to accomplish anything monumental by myself. Skipping prayer and jumping straight into work, especially kingdom work, is foolishness. These are God’s tasks, not mine. To accomplish His work I need to stay rooted in His presence.

When I minister in my own strength, I may see short-term results, but there is no lasting fruit. I have no power to effect real change. But when God is the source, miraculous things happen.

The disciples fed 4000 with bread that Jesus gave to them. But back in the boat, they were worried about feeding themselves because they didn’t have anything. What an amazing lesson for me. When I rely on my own strength, I look around and wonder how I will make it. But when I look to God, I see that I can do all things through Christ. And He has unlimited resources.

Like the disciples, I didn’t need to come up with the food. I just had to distribute what God was giving me.

I closed the Bible and prayed. For the first time in days, I felt an enormous sense of relief. Ultimately, my ministry and my family could not be served by my meager resources. They would be served out of God’s life-giving abundance. God would do all the work- my job was to listen to His voice.

So much had been accomplished that morning. My attitude towards my tasks was completely different. I didn’t feel as responsible for the outcome – I just needed to be faithful with my input.

That freedom carried over to the following days and weeks as I sensed the Lord’s direction in what I did. I was able to write and focus on my tasks immediately. It was as if God Himself was doing it for me. I began to pray more diligently about my work before starting it, a simple yet life-changing step.

Of course, God doesn’t only bless our work if we pray or have a quiet time. And God does not love me more when I read the Bible, or condemn me when I don’t. My time with God is not a favor I do for Him, hoping to get something in exchange. It is something that I need, not something God needs from me. It is His gift to me. If I skip it, I am the one missing out on this gift. In my time with Him, God instructs me. Fills me with hope. Empowers me. Gives me direction. Shows me that when I look to Him, He can use me to feed 4000.

I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther, who said, Tomorrow I plan to work, work, from early until late. In fact I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

 

 

photo courtesy of Jonathan Davidar