My Faith Story

A few weekends ago I had the opportunity to speak at a women’s retreat, and I started out by sharing my testimony – my story of faith. Today I thought I’d share it with you…

Me

I grew up in a believing family, the oldest of five. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t aware of God and drawn to him. I loved being at our little Lutheran church where there was Vacation Bible School, and potlucks, and lots of relatives. I especially loved singing – hymns on Sundays, and praise songs accompanied by a guitar on Tuesday nights. The summer I was twelve years old I went to Lake Beauty Covenant Bible Camp with my friend, Gail, and it changed my life. I was already awed by God, but at camp I heard clearly the story of Jesus – how he loved me, and died for me, and wanted to be my friend, and I fell hard in love. To this day I associate the smell of pine and the breeze off a lake on a cool summer morning with Jesus wooing me to himself. And it wasn’t just Jesus I loved that summer at camp, but his people. So many people, kids and teens and adults all singing loud and clapping their hands, and hugging each other. A girl in my cabin who was older than me tried to curl my hair with a curling iron – it was as stick straight then as it is now. And my counselor gave me an elephant kiss. It’s funny the things you remember and how love has so many faces.

I came down from the mountaintop that was camp just in time to start the seventh grade, and life in the valley was a mean old thing. I meant to share my Jesus love with my public school classmates, but I met a bit of resistance. Our school was all grades, 7-12 together on one wing of the building. And my most horrifying story is about the day someone planted a goat’s head in the girl’s bathroom. The same day someone put Gospel tracks in all the kids’ lockers. And later that day the rumor started about a Christian seventh-grader, Sonya, responsible for both, and someone came up with the nickname “Goat’s Head” and it about broke my heart… not just for a little while, but it followed me all the way up to my senior year of high school.

I’ve worked now in churches with teens for well over 25 years, and I hear stories all the time about kids being bullied, and I know because I’ve been there, the pain is real. I’ve always been grateful that instead of hurling me to dark places of regret, the torment sent me straight to Jesus. When He said He’d be my best friend that summer at camp, I took him at his word, and I held Him to it. I’d cry myself out in my pillow many nights, knowing He saw me and cared. I was in the eighth grade when my Campus Life leader, who was our school principal’s wife, read us Psalm 139, and I clung to His Word like a lifeline. He saw, and He knew, and He cared. And it was enough.

I survived high school in small town Minnesota, and then after my senior year I headed off to Bethel College. University now, but still just college back then. I drank up the Bible teaching, and tolerated my elementary education classes which I thought were a bit boring, and all the while I dreamt of the day I could return as a seminary student. I met Kyle at Bethel, halfway through my sophomore year and he was a senior. We fell for each other pretty quickly, and got engaged at the start of my junior year. He’d by then taken a grown-up job as an actuary with Hewitt Associates in Lincolnshire, Illinois, and I accelerated my education, finishing in 3 ½ years so we could get married in December of 1989. I joined Kyle in the northern suburbs of Chicago where we lived in an apartment, and then two houses, and we gave birth to two sons, during the seven years we were there. We attended Village Church of Gurnee, a church where we were known and loved and belonged, and when we decided it was time to move back to the land of our Minnesota Grandmas and Grandpas and cousins in the spring of 1996, it was Village Church we’d grieve the loss of most.

We’d been in Andover, Minnesota for about five years when I experienced what I like to call “my miracle.” It was fall 2001, almost the exact same time as 9/11. I remember that, because it was also the same fall I was diagnosed with a nasty parasite from a camping trip and my doctor asked me if I’d been stressed. And I remember thinking how many things there were in my life just then that were fairly stressful. So it was fall of 2001 when this awful and beautiful thing happened. We were in a small group with other young couples, and over the course of time some people in the group confronted Kyle and me about some concerns. About us. They said they had some concerns about us being prideful and insensitive and intimidating to the group. It was one of those experiences that just rocks your world, and thinking now about all the things that can and do rock people’s worlds… it almost seems silly. Except that it wasn’t. So there I was reeling and weeping three or four days after this confrontation when the miracle happened. When I brought my broken heart and my broken pride to God and asked Him, “What do you want me to do?” And He answered. I can hear Him still, and feel His touch. Like His hand on my shoulder. “Stay, and see what I’ll do.” That was it. And I responded. “Okay, I’ll stay. But I want you to give me what I’ve been missing.” And everything after that, for the next days, and weeks, and even years… all of it was a miracle. Everything I’d been missing, only up until then I hadn’t known I’d been missing it. He breathed new life in me and the life He breathed (I know now) was GRACE. It was grace.

You see even though I’d grown up in the church and in a home where God was respected and honored, being a Christian was more about something I did, than something I was. And I did it well. A firstborn daughter. A people-pleasing, perfectionistic, performer. I call them my P’s. And they owned me. Up until the time of my miracle, everything I did… as a Christian… I’d been doing like this. I was a people-pleasing, perfectionistic, performance driven Christian. Who really and truly loved Jesus. Which is the part of my story that’s a bit confusing, and why for a long time I didn’t really know what to call what had happened. Salvation part two? Soul revival? The Spirit’s filling? Looking back at it now, I’d say it was probably surrender. Falling into the arms of Jesus and finding everything I’d been missing.

And all I knew was that there was a before and after, and I felt like I was really truly a new creation. Awake and alive like never before. He rewrote my story. As the years passed, this new season of new life just kept going. I remember thinking, “I’m in God’s seminary, and He’s my teacher.” And He was. Every day soaking up His Word and His Spirit like I’d been starving. Every morning waking up with a song of praise in my head. It was very special, and it lasted several years, but not forever. It was a season. I know that now. When I was in that season I’d ask God, “Why did you wait so long?” And now that I’m in a different season, I’ve asked him often, “Why didn’t it last forever?” And I don’t know the answer to either question, except to say, I trust Him. I trust His timing, and I trust His ways. And every day for the rest of my life I’ll be glad for what He’s given.

There’s more to my story, of course. A lot more. Stories of refining and freedom from sin. Stories of Shalom and adoption and daily manna. Boymom stories you’ve maybe read; the stories of His faithfulness still to come. But that’s where it started. A little girl at camp. A goat’s head in the bathroom. Psalm 139. And many years later, a miracle.

More Books

Books

God often speaks to me through books, which has been the case this week. I’m nearly always reading several at once, and currently my collection includes an author I spent a week with at a camp in the Rockies several years ago; an author who wrote two centuries ago; and two women bloggers – one whose earthly journey ended in battle with cancer, and one who is young and living and beautifully wise.

Where to start? Murray I think. Andrew Murray has long been one of my favorite “dead authors” (1828 – 1917). His Covenants and Blessings was my go-to book during the formative years of my own covenant writing. This month I’ve been reading his Full Life in Christ, and it’s just what I’ve needed. Yesterday morning standing around the kitchen counter eating breakfast with Luke and Kyle, I made sort of a vow to take Murray’s word to heart for a holy experiment for the duration of my life. Two quotes to illustrate:

The lesson must be relearned: Christ, in the fullest sense of the word will be the life of those who dare to trust Him for it. Those who cannot trust with a full trust, cannot love with a full love. 

And this.

Make this your surrender: conscious of being utterly unable to do anything in your own strength, offer yourself to your Lord to work “in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).  

Amen and amen.

Sharon Hodde Miller says similar things in her Free of Me. This author, young and wise beyond her family season, writes with maturity I thoroughly admire. I see the pictures on her website of a pregnant belly and two little boys, and I won’t deny it, comparing my own adulting tribe, I wonder how one so young could know so much. And then I remember how I was in this same season when I was in God’s seminary and He was my teacher – and my heart is knit to this sister in Christ. And I’ll just say this – if you are a woman you should read this book!

Earlier this week I found myself in the wrong turn lane driving toward home, and decided on a whim to take a detour to the library. Not that I needed another book, but I’d just finished a brutal memoir, and I was looking for a bit of pleasure reading. Which does not at all explain how I ended up with Kara Tippettts’ And It Was Beautiful – a collection of blog posts written by this woman as she was dying of cancer. And it truly is a beautiful book. I am compelled by this author, along with the others, to live for what matters, with simple love and honest trust and an eternal perspective.

The last book in my stack (although I’ll admit there might be a few others tucked here and there) is Ken Gire’s Windows of the Soul. We met this author at Wind River Ranch the summer Grant was ten years old and he first climbed Half Dome with his dad. Ken was deep and thoughtful, the perfect kind of mellow for a mountain retreat, and each evening we’d circle up in Adirondack chairs and wooden rockers, cozy by the massive indoor fireplace, singing worship songs until the little ones fell asleep in Daddy’s arms, and then Ken would show us movie clips and we’d chat for a while about the meaning of things. Ken uses illustrations from art and story and nature to make spiritual connections.

Recently I’ve been rereading Gire’s book with my friend, Angie. And I must admit when she chose it from an assortment of books I’d brought with me to Caribou, I was secretly hoping to read something else – perhaps Donald Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, a book recommended at a Writer’s Guild I’d attended the night before. But like it often happens, God must have whispered his own choice in Angie’s ear, and He’s been using Ken’s “windows” of vocation and story to affirm my own call in my current season.

We read to know we’re not alone. This quote from C.S. Lewis is one I’ve long considered hanging in my library, and this week it’s been more than true. Through the words of each author I’ve found something to describe my own soul’s journey, and through them I’ve heard the voice God.

Cheating

Collage

Today was a really good day. A day of home and family and getting things done, and saying no to a few things in the process. Choosing to cheat – is how Andy Stanley describes it, and today the cheating was totally worth it. I knew earlier this week when Luke asked if we could hang out just the two of us Saturday morning, it was a done deal. All week ignoring repeated emails saying “parent volunteers needed” – this parent’s plans were already made.

We headed out early to a local diner for too much breakfast and too much coffee. Walked it off later enjoying a river view stroll, fall colors pretty near prime. Nonstop conversation about life and theology and the girlfriend from Colorado I’ll finally be meeting at the end of the month. Luke’s wheels are spinning over “eternal conscious torment” while I’m wondering how best to host a girl for an entire weekend in this houseful of testosterone and dog. Alas. Luke says Ali’s INFJ, just like me, even though it’s the rarest Myers-Briggs, which means she’s quiet, but a people-person, and she’ll like us even if we do overwhelm her. Luke (an ENTP – emphasis on the Thinking) almost always finds a way to weave personally types into these chats of ours, which is one of the many things I thoroughly enjoy about this boy.

Late morning we drove home by way of Hans Bakery to pick up donuts for brothers at home, and Dicks Sporting Goods for new running shoes for Luke, his birthday present two months late. I had to twist his arm to stop for the shoes, reminding him there are only two weeks left to break them in before our Monster Dash, which also happens to be the weekend Ali’s in town. We’ll have a whole cheering section, Grant and Kiana making the trip from Des Moines, and Nils from Cedar Falls. Although I am well aware not one of them is remotely interested in watching half-marathon runners, but quite invested in getting to know a certain sideline guest.

Shoes and donuts in hand, Luke and I arrived home just in time for him to load guitars and a drum set into the back of the Jeep for an afternoon of jamming with his Navs buddies, and I fired up the lawnmower, an excuse to soak up a bit more fall sun. I did a bit of noodling of my own while keeping an eye out for piles of dog do and flying acorns, thinking how by next weekend there will be leaves to contend with, and we’re planning a trip to Kenosha to finally meet my newest nephew. And I’m thinking, too, about a sweet little niece born just two days ago to my youngest brother, making a mental list of things I’ll pick up for a baby care-package, and wondering if and when we’ll get to meet little Sammie.

Grass cut and oil changed on two cars (Kyle, not me), we moved inside for a little home improvement. All week I’ve been waiting for my husband’s help with a bit of redecorating downstairs. Fresh paint and new-ish leather furniture purchased from my sister, and our former man-cave is almost girlfriend ready. Kyle flipped through channels trying to find a football game we could watch while hanging wall art, settling for an afternoon lineup of Fixer Upper instead. (I told you it was a really good day.) We worked side-by-side creating a collage of mountain photos, inspired by a canvas I ordered of my new favorite taken by Kiana in Yosemite last month. Felipe’s newest oil painting, also mountain scenery, and a nostalgic photo of three little boys hanging over a fence in the Rocky’s – and it’s perfection.Felipe's Mountains

It’s bedtime now and my newly decorated space is hopping with teens just returned from bowling. Jimmy and a whole crew of friends from school, some familiar, some new. I filled up bowls of popcorn and trail mix and potato chips, and there’s laughter filling up the night. And I’m thinking I should cheat myself a day at home with this family of mine more often.

More?

Camp Patmos

(Sunrise over Camp Patmos)

Friday a week ago I woke up before sunrise, nearly alone at a camp up north where I’d come to speak for a women’s retreat. It began as a God-thought, my arrival 24-hours early and a whole day to myself to prepare and pray, and soak up rest. I needed rest. The morning air was chilly but magically still as I cozied up on my blanket at the end of the dock, Bible and journal and coffee in hand. Sun and clouds shimmered in infinite reflection off water like glass, and I sat enraptured, spellbound by heaven.

I’d been there at the water an hour or so, thoughts drifting between prayer and scripture and messages memorized for the coming weekend, when I heard a rustling in the brush nearby. And there appeared not a hundred yards from where I sat, three deer, illuminated by morning sun, come to drink. I held my breath, awed and overwhelmed by such an exquisite gift.

As the deer pants for streams of water,
so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When can I go and meet with God?

Psalm 42:1-2 

This very text tells my own story, the one I’d be sharing with women the next day. This text, too, has been the heart of my prayer, in recent weeks and this very morning. Let the panting of my soul be for YOU. Because truth-be-told my soul has been panting, and panting hard, but it’s hard to say what it’s craving most.

Then, as deer finished their drinking and wandered unafraid back through weeds into trees, I continued my reading. The last chapter of John, the Gospel I’d be using for my weekend of teaching. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these?” And sitting there in the silence of morning I knew the answer. These? These fish? These men? The water, for Peter, was certainly refuge, a retreat from the crazy consuming his life.

My own craving. For rest and beauty. For retreat and refuge. And He asks in that moment, “Do you love me more? More than this?”

My life lately feels full to bursting. A good kind of full, but exhausting, too. A family of seven, a revolving door season, a home always busy. Doors God has opened for teaching and speaking and outreach and writing. Work and chores with demands unending. I’m admittedly weary. I’m longing for rest.

And He gives it. Twenty-four hours of quiet refuge, and He sends three deer, and then asks the question. And I answer like Peter.

Yes, Lord. You know all things. You know that I love you.

Even more than these.