Thursday, October 29, 2015

What God Has Done in 18 Years

I do love to write still, but can't seem to get to this space for my usual fix. This week, however, I wrote out a personal testimony of submission to God for my middle schoolers in Trek class. We were finishing up an entire 7-week unit on submission.

Some of you have read a bit of my story before, but this is everything God has done in my life in the last 18 years, as written to the middle schoolers. It's long, but then, 18 years is a lot of lessons.

7 Weeks on Submission

Reviewing Concepts

1. The path to greatness is through serving.

2. We should aim not to be first, but to be last.

3. Christians need to tell factual stories of what God has done in the Bible, and about what he has done in our personal lives. Another word for these factual stories is testimonies.

4. It is not easy or always safe to be God’s servant.

5. Satan knows how to tempt us. He knows our desires, and he will tempt us all through life, especially when we are vulnerable (feeling weak). We can follow Jesus’ lead and defeat Satan just like Jesus did during his 40 days of temptation.

6. God’s servants will be rejected by the world.

A Personal Testimony about Submitting to God

I grew up in a non-Christian home and it wasn’t until age 31 that I came to know Christ as my personal Savior. I was single all that time, teaching first grade in the high desert of California, about 90 minutes from Los Angeles. After my ninth year of teaching--two years after I became a Christian--I married a Christian man, continuing classroom teaching for two more years after, during which I suffered a miscarriage in my fifth month of pregnancy. I waited a long time for a husband and family, and I wanted my baby more than anything. All my dreams were shattered when they told me during an ultrasound that my baby boy had no heartbeat—and this after I saw him doing flips on ultrasound a month earlier, seemingly healthy.

The miscarriage occurred only 17 months after my wedding day, and even though I was happily married, for several weeks I wanted Jesus to take me home. The baby seemed like everything to me and I just didn’t have hope anymore. People told me that such things occur to women all the time, and that I best just accept it and get over it—that I wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last to suffer a miscarriage.

The facts are, about 10% to 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriages, and most of them before 12 weeks gestation.

My heart was broken and the callous remarks left me feeling emptier and more alone. Like Elizabeth in the Bible, I felt shame because my body didn’t perform as it was supposed to. I began noticing dozens of largely pregnant, happy women. Yes, it didn’t make sense, but I felt unworthy of being a woman. I trusted God and loved Him just as much even through the worst of the grief, but I had lost my innocence about happiness. Previously I thought that happiness was attainable—that everyone was going to experience happiness in some way. I felt entitled to happiness before that miscarriage.

I was desperate to be pregnant again. Really desperate, but it didn’t happen for five long months. In fact, it didn’t happen until I completely submitted to God in regard to my future as a mother. He might make me a mother, or He might not, but it was his story to write.  I might be happy for a time, or not, but it was His story to write. I was finally like Mary, saying to God…”Let it be to me as you say.”

I grew as a servant of God. I grew to understand that God promises His presence, His love, and His provision. He doesn’t promise that we’ll have everything we want, or even most of the things we want—including a spouse and family.  His purposes and His plan are higher than ours, and as his servants, we have to submit to that plan, no matter what it costs us.

I did get pregnant again, and finding out was the best day of my life!  I wept, while worshipping the God who gives and takes away, but would never forsake me.

The bliss didn’t last the whole pregnancy, for at the 20-week ultrasound they told me my baby had hydrocephalus (brain swelling) and a swollen kidney. Those first few days, I forgot all about my plan to submit to God, and I lamented…”How could this be happening, God! Why would you allow tragedy twice in a row?”

While I trusted God, I began to believe even further that as Christians we cannot anticipate happiness in earthly things. Children get sick. They die. Spouses die. Nothing is for sure. Only God is unchanging, ever-present, always loving, and always working for our good. He deserves all of our allegiance, even while our hearts are breaking.

Joy in Christ is always ours for the taking. But happiness is circumstantial—it depends on what’s happening in our lives. Happiness comes and goes.

Two days after our bad ultrasound news, a specialist could only confirm that my baby had swollen kidneys; there was no sign of brain swelling. We rejoiced, once more believing we might be parents yet. I dared to hope that everything would come out okay, and even though there were some pre-term labor problems, everything did come out okay. My baby was born at 37 weeks gestation. After birth, he had no kidney or brain problems.

Twenty-two months later I had another son, Paul. We were overjoyed.

After my first son was born, I had quit teaching full-time and started working part-time as a homeschooling facilitator in California, where our home was. My husband did not make enough for me to stay home, but God in his graciousness allowed me to work mostly from home. I had prayed desperately for months for the ability to stay home; to be a mother to the miracle in my arms was all I wanted. I now saw children as a gift, not as a right for every adult woman. Babies were placed in my arms by my loving Heavenly Father, and everything I did as a mother was an act of gratitude. 

God managed to give me a position that only required a babysitter for several hours a week, which was a miracle, for quitting work entirely wasn’t possible. My income was needed to avoid bankruptcy and defaulting on our obligations.

Though the situation was ideal, it wasn’t what I wanted for my children. It was just second best. There was a great deal of stress in trying to work as a mother of a baby and a toddler.

Little did I know, that God was at work still, planning to give me the desire of my heart.

I got pregnant again (third child) and since I was already having trouble keeping up with my professional work, I knew something had to change. I couldn’t be both a good mom and a good employee. My heart was at home and leaving my children for even a couple hours left me feeling extremely anxious. Some women can do both well (balance work and home), but God didn’t create me like that.

We put our 3-bedroom, modest California home up for sale in 2005. We had only owned a home for three years, but if it sold in that high-market period, we would have enough equity to pay off $26,000 in student loans, plus paying off two cars and other bills, and leaving enough to move and get a mortgage on another modest house in a cheaper state. We decided to go without a job to the new state, on faith that one would be obtained.

The house sold in two weeks, and I began speaking with an aunt in Ohio about housing prices. We had no family left anywhere in California, and having at least one aunt around—who happened to be my only Christian relative--seemed like a dream.

Unfortunately, as soon as we sold our house, I suffered another miscarriage at 10 weeks gestation. It was devastating, but we moved anyway since we had sold the house. It seemed as though God had orchestrated the whole thing.

After the move I began staying home in Ohio with my two boys full-time.  In what still seems like a miracle, God gave me the desire of my heart. Peter was 3 and a half, and Paul only 22 months. I babysat for extra money, and my husband worked very hard for us in a modest, relatively low-paying job.

I was 39 when we moved to Ohio, and to my amazement, two surprise babies were born to us when I was 40 and 42 years old, and they are fabulous blessings—two girls, now 6 and 8. God was so faithful to the desires of my heart, but he didn’t have to be. He blessed me beyond my wildest dreams, and even though my children have some troublesome health problems, I feel incredibly grateful and blessed. Things are not perfect or easy, but God is faithful and loving, always.

Our lives took a sharp turn in 2009 when my husband lost his job, and we experienced real, first-world poverty. Although 14% of America is hungry, which is unacceptable, it is still true that no one usually starves in America. So our first-world poverty was vastly different than third-world poverty, which consists of cooking outside of a leaky-roof shack without running water, without toilets, and sometimes without electricity. We still lived like kings and queens, from a third-world perspective.

We were like outcasts in our own land, however. We felt left out of everything, and I began learning in earnest about poverty around the world. My eyes were miraculously opened to how arrogantly Americans live, in light of the way the rest of the world lives. I learned that as Christians, we had been missing something BIG about what God wanted from our lives. I felt we had been Christian in name only, along with many other American Christians.

But God is gracious to meet us where we’re at. We all start out with a lot of sin and blindness, and God moves us along with love and patience. This period of learning about world poverty began a major restructuring in my mind of what it meant to be a Christian.

We were scared and devastated about the job loss, already barely making ends meet, but we had great faith and believed God would provide, so I didn’t go to work.

In fact, I had taken on something significant at home, in the year prior to the job loss. We had read that 82% of public-schooled Christian children left their faith after high school, while only 7% of homeschooled Christian children did. Despite this statistic, I am not advocating here that homeschooling is right for every Christian. It was just right for us.

It became clear to both of us before we even finished reading the article. We pulled our first-born son out of kindergarten in the fourth week of school, welcoming homeschooling as a way of life. It allows us large amounts of time to diciple our children.

A major submission in my life came through our ongoing, relative poverty. While God provided, it was nonetheless seriously challenging to be the have-nots in a materialistic society. Not long after the job loss, my husband—who was 50 when he lost his job--began working 54 hours a week for a low wage. Even though he worked harder than most, we represented the working poor—working high hours for a low wage. My husband’s age didn’t make it easy to find a decent job, nor did his Bachelor’s degree in theology, which brought spiritual benefits but not always material ones. 

Whether you have a college degree or not, know that your daily bread comes from God. There are no magic formulas for an easy-living lifestyle.

We learned quickly that we no longer fit in anywhere—not even at church. Everyone talked about the places they went and the things they did, or the remodeling they did on their house. We listened politely, but we avoided talking about ourselves, knowing ridicule was likely regarding our choices. I avoided women’s ministry because I couldn’t join in any of the conversations. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, or ridicule me for not working, when my family obviously needed more money.

To choose to be poor for the sake of the children wasn’t something people could relate to. Our society thinks children need things and experiences, and thus my children were at a disadvantage in their eyes—they were to be pitied, in other words. They were pitied by people who knew our situation, even though they had toys (Goodwill has good toys), and clothes and food, and a warm, loving place to live. They also had a yard, which is far more than most children in the world have in terms of space.

There were no vacations, or any lengthy road trips because of the cost of gas. We never went out to dinner or to movies or to events that cost money, unless someone gifted us with tickets. All our garments come from careful, meticulous thrift-store shopping—finding the best there is so everyone looked respectable. No one guesses, most of the time, what our lifestyle is like because we don’t wear it on our sleeves, so to speak.

We also didn’t fit in with relatives, who thought we were ignorant. Because we could rarely go anywhere or do anything, we visited libraries and parks. We did a lot of living through wonderful books. We grew to love God’s earth and see Creation as a love song to us. There is much that is free, given to man as a gift from God, to amaze us and amuse us and remind us of Him.

Even with faith, a low-income lifestyle is stressful. A car repair could mean not enough food, and too much food could mean not enough gas. Everything’s a struggle, but alongside us there has always been God’s grace and the joy of raising children.

The greatest challenge to my joy, year after year, was Christmas. I dreaded it. We couldn’t buy anything for our children, unless a relative or friend sent Christmas money, though twice over the years near-strangers blessed my children with a ready-wrapped Christmas.

We couldn’t buy anything for others, either. Scraping up money for holiday baking, a holiday turkey, or Operation Christmas Child, were all faith walks. While others were spending hundreds or thousands, and going out to eat with every shopping trip, and going to productions like the Nutcracker, I was hoping Christmas would be over soon. I began to desperately look for meaning in Christmas, knowing that when we view things eternally, we always find the deepest and most satisfying meaning.

Finally, after studying and contemplating, I grew to believe that Christmas was a commercial enterprise, not a biblical enterprise. The first Christmas is not celebrated in the Bible, outside of the shepherds coming to worship Jesus after His birth, and the wise men coming to worship the toddler Christ child—who by then was no longer a baby. Even though the virgin birth of Christ was one of the most significant events in all history, there wasn’t a biblical feast or holiday declared.

Christmas and I came to an understanding, however. It could be used to annually acknowledge the miracle of the virgin birth and Emmanuel, God with us, even though, as Christians we’re supposed to be reveling in that miracle every day.  For me now, Christmas is a time to perform random acts of kindness toward our unsaved neighbors, and for the less fortunate. That’s the best use of it, my heart and mind finally decided, though we still bake cookies and cook turkey and put on living room Nativity plays. We invite the lonely to celebrate with us.

I don’t hate Christmas anymore because I have learned true gratitude. I have learned to count eternal blessings more than earthly ones. I concentrate on what God wants, and not on what I feel. What I feel is unimportant. God gives me His spirit and changes my selfish feelings to match his sacrificial ones, the more I submit to Him and practice gratitude as a way of life.

How did my children fare in all of this? My children to this day do not know what the inside of a movie theatre is like, or the inside of a restaurant besides Pizza Hut. They have lived a very different life than their peers, and right now as my boys acclimate to youth group for the first time, they feel all the feelings I have felt over the years. They don’t fit in, in terms of lifestyle, and everyone is talking about things they have never seen or done or had. “You don’t know what a Game boy is? Are you serious? You don’t play video games? Are you serious? You’re weird.”

These are real comments made to one or both of my boys, and though no harm or disrespect was intended, it still stung and made them feel marginal—on the outside of life, looking in.

They are staying strong, though. They have already learned to distinguish between wants and needs, and they understand what a distraction consumerism is. It is excruciatingly hard sometimes, but they understand they are blessed to have a unique perspective, even when Satan is there, telling them they deserve this or that like the others have.

They, too, are learning gratitude.

For a long time I thought God was trying to teach us important eternal lessons, and when we had learned those lessons, we would be less poor. But that hasn’t happened. Nothing has changed materially in these six years following the job loss. I have come to peace with, and submitted to this lifestyle, and I see the blessings inherent in having to depend on God for everything. I feel more blessed than ever before, even though I’m still a marginal character to those around me.

Wealth is only a blessing if you share it. If you don’t it will likely be your spiritual downfall. It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to get to heaven. Rich people don’t need God—though their souls do, of course. Rich countries don’t need God. Thus, America is more godless than ever. China and Africa are gaining comparatively more Christians than we are. We’re losing Christians.

I want you to imagine a simple, tiny wood house without running water or commercial furniture, without closets or different rooms--just a shelter over your head and cooking done camping-style, outside. I’ve seen many videos of this and I’ve read about it. Christians who live like this feel a very real and amazing presence of God all the time. They have a deep soul joy and a faith we richer Christians don’t often experience, in all our comfort and self-reliance.

Every single thing you add to that simple existence distracts you more and more from God. The electronics, the convenience tools, all the things that make life easier and pleasurable, such as luxuries and vacations…they all change us. They take up all of our time and attention. They crowd God out and as we crowd him out, we no longer feel the abundant spiritual life he wants for us. We look for more and more things and experiences to fill the void in our lives, never understanding that we successfully crowded God out, without even realizing it. Whoever loses his life for Me will find it. We don’t find our life in things or comforts. We find it in God alone. God is what our souls are hungry for, though as you learned in this unit, Satan will always be there telling you this is a lie.

As I learned more and more about world poverty, I fell in love with an outstanding Christian organization called Compassion International (www.compassion.com), which is a child-sponsorship ministry that serves millions of children the world over, all in Jesus’ name. They help children and their families come to know Jesus, as they relieve their suffering and provide hope for their futures—all for $38 dollars a month per sponsored child. Personal letter writing by sponsors is a huge part of Compassion’s ministry. The letters are like gold to these children, some of whom have never been told they are loved by anyone. Their parents, just trying to survive daily, don’t often know how to nurture their children, though they do love them.

As part of another faith walk, knowing that all monies come from God, not from us, we sponsored a young lady from Uganda, and a young man from El Salvador, for a total of $76 a month (plus family gifts to them at our tax refund time, to ensure they have roofs that don’t leak and a mattress to sleep on, and clothes and shoes). God always provides the money to do this, even though on paper it doesn’t work out for our budget. 

When God wants something from us, he provides the means, often through weird occurrences like unexpected refund money from the dentist or insurance company. Once, 3 or 4 years ago, our 1998 van was on its last month of life and we had no idea how we would cart our four kids around, since my husband drove a 25-year-old sedan.

I got hit by a car coming back from the grocery store. It was a miracle, especially since no one was hurt and I was alone in the van. The insurance company gave us $4000 more than we expected for the value of our Toyota Sienna van. We bought a used van, a 2003, for $3000, and the rest went to other obligations and to our Compassion children.

Our Compassion family has grown over the years. We also write to four other children whose sponsors do not write to them--from Nicaragua, Burkina Faso, India, and the Dominican Republic. Besides my own children and husband, these children are the joy of my life. Their four to six letters each per year fill us with joy. Checking the mail has become a treat. I love impacting them for Jesus, and I love how they impact us with the joy of simple belief…simple, child-like faith…simple living. Our monthly letters to them remind them that God has not forgotten them. Poverty tells them they are worthless. They need to be told a different message, in Jesus’ name. I tell them I love them and that God loves them and that He has plans to prosper them and not harm them, to give them a hope and a future. Not a material prosperity necessarily, but a spiritual one.

If you want to get involved with Compassion International and don’t have the $38 a month, you can call them and ask to be a correspondent sponsor for children whose sponsors do not write to them. This experience will change your life, and the life of the child you write to. You can become a sponsor online at www.compassion.com, but to be a correspondent you need to call them directly at 800-336-7676.

A man from Kenya recently came to American for the first time, to meet with a ministry partner here in the States. His American ministry partner took him along as they stopped at a couple mega-churches to pick up promised ministry donations. The Kenyan man, having grown up in abject poverty—looking in trash cans for food as a youngster--looked at the huge, fancy churches with their cafes, and bookstores, and their huge playgrounds and he said, puzzled…”Do they worship the same Jesus?”

I have learned that worshiping Jesus means giving up a respectable life. It means giving up the notion of ever fitting in. My heart must bleed for what Jesus’ heart bled for…for the oppressed, the orphans, the widows, the poor and the lame…and about souls most of all.

I have learned that the American Church has it all wrong. This church, however, has it more right than most, since we have several ministries that serve the poor and oppressed. Be proud that your church stands out in this way--different from the usual American pact of churches. And work personally to do more as you grow up in this church.

We aren’t supposed to pursue the American dream of a house, nice yard, bigger and better things, and nice vacations. We’re supposed to be pursuing something greater than that…something greater than ourselves. We are supposed to be getting in last place, so someone else can go ahead of us in line, for the glory of God. It’s not that we have to make ourselves poor with our giving, just that we should give until it truly hurts and truly makes us depend on God. In all this we identify with Christ in his suffering, and feel the abundant life he desires for us.

Our faith then stands out as a miracle, and points to God’s glory, goodness, and provision.
I believe God put enough of everything on this earth. There is enough food, enough land, enough water, and enough trees for shelter. Yet some people can’t sleep for the rain that leaks through their makeshift tin roofs. Some people walk around hungry all the time, and walk hours to get water for cooking. Kids work in fields and never go to school, because eating is more pressing than an education.

But this doesn’t have to be. This doesn’t occur because God is heartless. It occurs because we are heartless. We have loved ourselves, instead of our fellow man. God expected us to distribute our extra and we failed. We were supposed to be his hands and his feet to all those who have not enough, or who have nothing, and we failed. The gap between rich and poor is growing even in our own country as we read this.

You young people are the future of our country. I want you—God wants you--to see through materialism. Compassion International has an excellent blog about child poverty and helping in Jesus’ name. Find it and read it often, with your parents’ permission, at www.compassion.com/blog. Read about the 80% of the world living on less than $2.50 a day. It’s an inconvenient truth nobody wants to know about, but open your eyes and really understand this reality and your Christian responsibility. 

Adjust your gaze so that it is on God, and not on yourself. Look at your life dreams and be willing to set them aside as Mary and Joseph did, when they accommodated an embarrassing and recriminating pregnancy. Think about that pregnancy and what it looked like in their culture. It placed them in a position of shame and ridicule and extreme loneliness. They became outcasts.

In your lives, aim to lead the American church to redemption…to true worship and true knowledge of what it means to follow Christ and to love Christ.

The path to greatness is through what?


Through serving others.

1 comment:

multicolouredsmartypants.com said...

Beautiful testimony! Praise Jesus!