when God exists to make you happy (and other myths I’ve had to wrestle with)

Christianity is pretty divided sometimes.

Whenever I talk about it I usually make sweeping generalizations saying something along the lines of “there seems to be two camps of thought” when a particular issue or scripture comes up. Truth be told, there’s probably more along the lines of a million camps, but that idea is a bit overwhelming to try and process so I simplify for myself. 

One such set of “two camps” has been going at it in my subconscious for a few months now, if not years at this point are the “God exists to make you happy/God doesn’t exist to make you happy” camps.

In high school I was a hardcore “Psalm 37:4/Jeremiah 29:11″ Christian. You know the type, and if you don’t, the short way to describe myself from that period is that I read the bible as a book about me, and my favorite verses talked mostly about how God was going to give me want I truly wanted out of life if I put Him first. I loved “plans to prosper me” and “abundant life”, and expectantly looked to the future where I was sure God would honor my ‘True Love Waits’ ring and give me a really hot husband who played guitar and looked like a young Adrian Greiner and wanted to have about 10 kids with me. All my decisions were more or less motivated by “honoring God”, but under the microscope of any scripture other than my hand chosen, semi out-of-context pluckings, somehow seemed to be fall pretty flat from a vibrant life following the Spirit.

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The years went on and I came to realize there were a lot of other people that seemed to go by more or less the same thing. It wasn’t (and isn’t) uncommon to hear things about how coming to Jesus would better our lives and would result in living a more blessed life. I’m totally going to pull an overly-used card and cite the whole “Joel Osteen” type thing, but maybe that will more or less encompass it. It’s the sort of clean and shiny, all-American, all-Republican, orderly, blessed, “shaken-together-and-running over” affluence that was a result of good choices and a lot of naming, claiming, grabbing and bagging people who had all the best intentions and hearts once you talked to them. 

I didn’t discover the other camp until about college, honestly. I could even go as far as to say that I didn’t truly immerse myself into it until I got a crash course in ‘Perspectives’, which can be briefly summarized as a jarring but clarifying revelation of how the Bible is a book about Jesus, where I am a supporting character and this idea that “missions exists because worship doesn’t”.

The second I realized the bible wasn’t written about me (though there are certainly passages that speak directly to me), I remember I felt a weight lift off my chest and could almost see all the pieces falling together in front of my eyes. I didn’t have to scan my bible for verses about me or to justify my feelings on issues–I could read it as an expose of God Almighty and who He is. Scriptures I’d never been able to explain in relation to myself suddenly were full of new meaning as I realized they were talking about Jesus, not about me. After years and years of reading the bible the same way, having a new perspective released me to actually understand it in its fullness. And it wasn’t about me, or about me having everything I wanted, or about how I deserved it because I could recite verses about plans to prosper me. It was about Jesus, his heart, his love for the nations, his personality, and yes, even his relationship with his people (hey, that’s me!). The entire thing made me feel strangely more valuable than ever, like I had a intimate secret with Him after years of trying to “get into the club” but somehow feeling like I was still missing it.

It was a wonderful time for me. 

With this came the death of a lot of cliches in my life and vocabulary. With the belief that Jesus ultimately mattered more than me having what I felt I wanted out of life, I couldn’t bring myself to apply familiar phrases like ‘God wouldn’t let that happen to me’ or ‘God wouldn’t want this for me’ when I was faced with something uncomfortable in my life or my relationship with Him. Things about “if we’d only have enough faith” being our tickets out of things made me think of David Livingstone dying of dysentery in Zambia after years as a missionary, fervently serving the Lord. Would any of us dare say that he was living outside the will of God? Suddenly there was story after story of people serving Jesus with their lives who actually died on the mission field–people with faith greater than mine, or at least my estimation of my faith. 

There were more than just missionary stories that ended in heartache and sickness (at least on a physical level). There were suddenly books on how marriage exists to make us holy, not happy. You better believe it was tough to kiss the years I’d believed “When God Writes Your Love Story” goodbye. I suddenly realized that God might ask something of me that made me uncomfortable or interrupted my own plans for my life, if it suited His plan.

And so this change grew in me. What started out as a relief to discover that my life as a Christian was about more than my comfort and a sexy instagram account and 401k subtly descended into a skepticism that God actually cared about me at all. 

Fast forward to the now (read, a few weeks ago).

It’s been said that I’m an extremist, which is probably a pretty honest assumption about my character. If I’m in something, really about it, I’m 150% in and no one can change my mind. 

All of these experiences, revelations, false assumptions and the ultimate annoyance at the “It’s all about Me” Christianity blended together into a massive cocktail of frustration that resulted in me rejecting actual passages of scripture because it might associate me with that which I’ve come to passionately renounce. 

“Stephanie, you can’t ignore verses about my goodness and my love for you and my ability to work all things for good just because you feel other people abuse them. These passages are still true of me, and still true towards you. My ‘will’ may not be what you envisioned for yourself, but it will still be good things. You are allowed to believe that. When have you ever regretted my movement in your life when you were fully surrendered to me?”

Psalm 16 is a wonderful example of the Lord’s goodness towards David and has become something of an anthem for me in recent weeks. 
I said to the Lord, “You are my Master!
    Every good thing I have comes from you.

Lord, you alone are my inheritance, my cup of blessing.
    You guard all that is mine.
The land you have given me is a pleasant land.
    What a wonderful inheritance!

You will show me the way of life,
    granting me the joy of your presence
    and the pleasures of living with you forever.

And context: David wrote this stuck in a cave hiding out from King Saul. Things really sucked for him on a human level at that point in his life. And yet, he was confident of the Lord and his inheritance. He believed God despite his circumstances and recognized that the ultimate prize of his life had never left him, because his inheritance was the Lord Himself.

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So I guess you could say I’m neither/nor, both/and camps now. God doesn’t exist to make me happy, but my relationship to and with him contains great joy that isn’t dependent on the physical. And I’m learning to rest in the fact that God actually does have good things for me, and they may even be material blessings at different points of my life. Who am I to say how, when or to what extent God is able to bless me? But I never want to wield scriptures as some celestial “you owe me” flag, expectant of this or that specific raise or relationship or opportunity.

I just might hold on to it as a gentle reminder that Jesus is with me, and Jesus is working, and Jesus is supremely valuable and that is enough to make me to fill me with joy that surpasses what we call “happiness”.

“The man who has God for his treasure has all things in One. Many ordinary treasures may be denied him, or if he is allowed to have them, the enjoyment of them will be so tempered that they will never be necessary to his happiness. Or if he must see them go, one after one, he will scarcely feel a sense of loss, for having the Source of all things he has in One all satisfaction, all pleasure, all delight. Whatever he may lose he has actually lost nothing, for he now has it all in One, and he has it purely, legitimately and forever.”
    – A.W. Tozer

sometimes a good shattering is all you need

It’s been a while, kids, but I’m back.

I’m back in more ways than one.

As some of you may know, I had been hoping to return to Tanzania this year for the few months before Christmas. Long story short, after a lot of prayer and genuinely asking Jesus what my next step would be, I realized I had to let go of my plans to immediately return to the mission field—for now.

Not exactly what I had in mind for myself, but this new season of my life seems to be a revisiting and re-evaluating my “plans”, and having Jesus change them to see if I’m still going to trust him.

Beyond that, in all my quiet times I can all but audibly hear him asking me if I’m willing to esteem him greater than my desire to “serve him” in the way that makes me the most comfortable.

This all probably sounds a bit backwards, but from what I know of God he is all about keeping us on our toes and shaking us up when we get too comfortable in what we think we’re going to do.

There’s something to be said of the danger of being too comfortable in our relationship with Jesus. We stop asking him what his heart is for us today. We stop listening to hear his voice daily. We stop up our sensitivity to his Spirit because we know our future and no longer need his advice or opinions. We’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that we’re established and independent of the Lord.

In their hearts humans plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps.

I’m a fiercely independent person, and I’m also a little too obsessed with the formulaic. If God teaches me something once, in one way, in one place, I immediately latch onto it and try to re-create it again in my life. “This is how he worked last time,” I reason with myself, “this must be the way I can expect him to do things from now on”. Just like that, I have a nice little set of rules to follow to see God come through in the exact way he did last time, eliminating, of course, all of his sovereignty and any plans he had to stretch my faith.

This is not me being Spirit-led, this is me is taking matters into my own hands, looking to my last ‘large-scale’ obedience and trying to replicate it again… instead of being open to the fact that God might have other plans.

I’m not giving up on the things I believe God has put in my heart, by the way. I still believe there are more overseas journeys in my future, and there’s nothing to say I can’t be a blessing and be useful here in the States. It’s not that I think I have to be out of the country to be where I’m the happiest, or to be where God wants me. I mean, part of me does, but I think that’s something He still wants to work out of me.

Just when I think I’ve got him all figured out he shows me another level of trust, another level of intimacy, another level of freedom.

shattering

I am determined to be teachable in this next season, no matter how much I may initially resist it. Here I am, Jesus; still yours.

Looks like I’ll be around for a while longer, Naples.

Here’s to hopefully finding a job in the not-so-distant future.

there and back again (part two)

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I’ve been reading about human trafficking for years.

If there’s a documentary about it, there’s a good chance I’ve watched it and can recommend it to you. I’ve read books, I can name off some of the big name organizations focused on eliminating it and rescuing victims, I know that trafficking for labor and sex happens both in the United States and overseas. I’ve read of horrific cases that seem so dark and so riddled with evil that they almost seem fabricated–how is it possible for humans to treat other humans with such contempt? The same is true for hearing stories of children left to fend for themselves. How can adults watch children, five year olds taking care of one year olds, and not feel the overwhelming sadness of it? How can people watch and do nothing?

The difference for me now is after going to India, and being just minutes away from the Red Light District (though I never went it), I have more than stories and statistics.

I have people. 
I have relationships.

I have face-to-face moments I shared with tiny human beings who have personalities and are real people.

I have three little faces* looking up at me with dark, trusting eyes, and I hear that they watched their father set their mother on fire and that she died in front of them. These ones? These little ones, 7, 5 and 2, who still somehow smile and play–two boys and a little girl. She’s too young to remember, which is the only mercy, but the older boys surely must remember something. The oldest boy wakes up from naptime crying almost every day. All the kids protest, but he fights me with a particular distress. It occurs to me that maybe he remembers something.

It’s not a story. It’s not an impersonal, distant statistic.

It’s a reality, and it’s their reality.

It’s not “so many children are suffering with AIDS”, it’s our little Sultan*, who looks more like a three year old than a six year old, and more like a little elderly man with his missing teeth.

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He sleeps most of the day, and was feverish and lethargic when I first arrived, but finally started school for the first time the last week I was there, and it’s an exciting triumph. He didn’t warm up to me too much in the time I was there, since he has his favorite “didi” (the name the children call us all: “sister”), but he did climb into my lap once to laugh at videos on my phone. He was so small in my lap. He has siblings, much older siblings, but doesn’t want anything to do with them and throws temper tantrums. I’m not sure why.

It’s not “ex amount of children are living on the streets alone”. It’s the fairest Indian boy I’ve seen yet, with bright blue eyes that make him look like more like a European. I find out that his funny little swagger and tough guy nature that causes him to lash out occasionally with his fists probably kept him alive while he lived homeless from two years. He’s about eight now. He’s so young. How is it possible?

It’s not “such and such children grow up in the brothels their mothers work in”, it’s this little one and the fact that her mom was swinging her into a brick wall by her hair in the brothels when the girls found her.

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She’s been taken back by her mom twice, and if she comes a third time, Rahab’s won’t be able to keep her. Her eyes are huge and her smile is contagious. She’s so beautiful, even now with her short hair that had to be cut to help with the lice all the kids share, and I can’t fathom it as I look at her. How could someone look at this little doll and harm her?

And on and on and on it goes.

But even as I share here, I realize they could be reduced to stories. It almost feels sacrilegious or disrespectful to share, somehow. I choose to, still, because meeting them changed my perspective on things. What I previously categorized as an atrocity that was predominantly a woman’s struggle I now see as a dark claw that reaches past women to children, both boys and girls, and men as well. There is no cinematic glamor or grit about it and it should never be simplified with dramatics. Please understand me when I write the words that are so unflinching and so uncompromising: it was real.

And now that I know, now that I’ve seen, now that I’ve been there… now what?

What is the next step?
What can I do?
What can I say?

Sometimes I feel that sharing my experiences means that I should have an answer or a “lesson learned” or a sunny bow to tie everything up with by the end of the blog. I usually do. But this is heavy and today I don’t have answers… other than I know with every fiber of my being that I’ll fight this.

Satan is a nasty foe, but Jesus has already overcome.

*For safety reasons, names have been changed and faces are hidden

there and back again (part one)

No hobbits here, but I have made it back again after an eye opening several weeks. I think that I’ve been somehow avoiding writing because I haven’t been ready to process but I can tell it’s time. With some solitude and a little iced coffee, I suppose it’s okay to let the tears fall freely.

The Organization

First I want to share about Rahab’s Rope, wonderful nonprofit I was privileged to join in ministry. Started by Vicki and David Moore back in 2004 after Vicki heard stories of young women and girls being trafficked for sex, they have three locations in Bangalore, Goa and Mumbai. Additionally, Rahab’s has a store location in downtown Gainesville, Georgia where they sell products that the women create to generate revenue for the ministry.

God has shown them incredible favor and opened up opportunities for them in the darkest of places—their predominant position of ministry is directly inside the brothels and red light districts where they spend time teaching (both reading, English, trade skills and most importantly, about Jesus), loving and building relationships with the women that are enslaved. Rahab’s partners with International Justice Mission to actually rescue women, but they also don’t give up on the girls that are unable to leave, or even more incredibly, not ready to step away from the only life they know.

I can’t speak highly enough about the dedication and bravery of the long term staff that walk into places most of us would consider unthinkable and spend their time serving and loving those the world at large might consider unredeemable. To me, that is the very heart that Jesus had while he was on earth, and it is part of the beauty of our God—there is no one, no one, who can find himself (or herself) out of His sight or out of His reach.

I’ve never been more passionate about a cause in my life, and I stand 100% behind Rahab’s Rope, International Justice Mission and any group of believers who not only are dedicated to helping women in a tangible, physical, practical way, but also recognizes the need for the spiritual healing that only Jesus is able to offer.

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The Children’s Home: Mumbai

With specific numbers varying from source to source, it’s estimated that there are between 20 million (Hindustan Times) and 31 million (UNICEF) orphans in India today. Some children are abandoned by their families, some are orphaned by AIDS, some are ‘illegitimate’ children of commercial sex workers (CSW), some are HIV/AIDS positive themselves. Any way you choose to look at it, there are staggering amounts of children who are in dire physical need; it goes without saying that the spiritual poverty is just as devastating.

Partnering with local brothers, who are also pastors, Rahab’s is caring for about 75 children between the ages of 2 and 18, the help of full time national staff and short-term volunteers from the States. All of the children living in the home are either 1) orphans, 2) children of CSW and/or 3) HIV positive. Together, Rahab’s and the nationals have been able to arrange scholarships with different schools around the city so the children are able to receive an education, as well as a more stable living condition that is found at the children’s home. The little ones have their basic needs for clothes, food, shelter, health care, education, loving care and play met—and they learn about Jesus.

I’m not able to post most of the photos I took for safety reasons; some of the children are still being sought after by madams in the brothels and putting images of their faces on the internet is ill-advised. Rest assured, they are completely and flawlessly precious.

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Where I come in

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As a short term volunteer I spent my time in the children’s home, predominately with the young 5 – 9 year old boys, doing VBS activities, helping the boys get washed, dressed and ready for the day, playing little games and doing lots and lots and lots of cuddling. It’s difficult for the kids to get enough one on one cuddles and attention that all children inherently need, and that is the most valuable thing I was able to contribute during my time. Love given to honor Jesus, no matter how seemingly “insignificant” or small, is never love wasted. It is the very heart of God.

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The Team

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I also had a chance to meet other girls my age passionate about the same things as me, despite the differences in our backgrounds. There was a time where I would have said that two nursing students, a nutritionist student, a missionary kid/psyche graduate, a naval officer, an ex-elementary teacher and myself wouldn’t have anything in common, but we all shared a love for Jesus and a desire to be His hands in a world much darker than the one we grew up in. I can’t explain how encouraging and exciting it was to see these ladies in action each day, and to share a living space with them. We shared so much fun and so much heartbreak over the little ones and the experience would not have been the same without them.

Several of the girls are still over there and you can read more about their day to day activities and learn how to pray for them and the littles ones on their blogs:

Moments in Mumbai – Kaitlin Chance

The Scarlet Cord – Valerie Gomez

(To Be Continued)

almost time for India, so here’s some self-disclosure

I’m at the stage of pre-trip planning where all I have show for myself is two empty suitcases on my floor, a tab open to Netflix and the idea that a second cup of iced coffee would be good to steady my shaky hands. I’m also convincing myself that doing laundry is somehow part of the packing process, even if 80% of the clothes being washed would never be acceptable as ministry appropriate because they are skinny jeans and tank tops.

This is also the same stage where I start getting nervous because I know my perception of life is about to be directly attacked as I step into another culture and another way of life. I’m suddenly embarrassed at the trivial conversations that I have about where I bought these pants (Bealls on sale) and the superfluity my new highlights (I would describe it as sort of a sun kissed, natural look).

It’s not secret that I’ve been wanting to get to India for years now, and the fact that I get to do so in the form of volunteering with beautiful Indian babies for a few weeks, honestly seems too good to be true.

While Myers Briggs has me pegged as an idealist, I’m also constantly at war with my inner skeptic. I’m not the bright-eyed dreamer on her first trip to Costa Rica where I thought I could just sweep in and change the lives of small children forever with only a week and a translator.

I’m not discounting the work of the Holy Spirit here; in fact, I’m endorsing Him even more. But He is His own thing, and I can’t manipulate Him into meeting my particular goals or outcomes.

That being said, short-term trips are really difficult for me because the typical Western mindset is “let’s cram as much activity in two to three weeks and see the most change or we won’t feel like it was worth our time”. (This is more or less mostly unspoken). After nearly a year on the field doing children’s ministry making lots of mistakes, I’ve had to learn the value of seeing Jesus in the small things… and appreciating the peace that comes with obeying Him regardless of the transformation that we do or don’t in those we’re ministering to. The relationship built opens up the door for sharing and teaching day to day: discipleship, which is actually what Jesus asked us to do in Matthew 28:19 – 20.

And yet, there are so many people in Jesus’ own ministry that He encountered, if only briefly, and was able to give them His love, His life, His truth… Himself. God is entirely capable of using the smallest word, the shortest encounter, to plant a seed, to (dare my inner cynic even say it?) change a life. He wastes no experience and is constantly moving; it remains only for us to be willing to jump onboard and submit to Him in the every day no matter where we are.

“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.”
– Mother Teresa

So I have no expectations or goals on this trip other than getting on board with whatever God is doing in the moment, and hugging all over the precious, precious little ones put in front of me. That’s all I can do. That, and choosing to trust that He can multiply my five loaves and two fishes into enough for a group of people whose needs I could never hope to meet in my lifetime.

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Also the loudest of shout-outs to all the wonderful, generous and kind people who donated towards this trip. I can’t thank you all enough and I’m once again humbled by the favor I’ve been showed by God through the blessings of others. I have been supported in full and now I am able to do this, where I couldn’t have possibly before on my own. You all are amazing!

Thank you, sincerely and from the bottom of my heart.