Alone in Africa {A Story of Waiting and Advent}

Kenyan countryside
Kenyan countryside, from my bus window.

Two years ago, I flew to Nairobi for a dear friend’s wedding. It would be a whirlwind trip with only five days on the ground in Africa, my first visit to this continent. I would spend three days meeting Gracie’s new Kenyan family and friends, frosting cakes, and, finally, putting on a red dress and curling my hair to be bridesmaid. But for those first two days, I would take a bus to Mbale, Uganda, to meet Brenda and Remmy, my sponsored children.

My flight arrives late evening, and I only get a few hours of sleep before I have to get up to catch the bus. We drive as close as we can to the station, then make our way through the crowds, Gracie and her fiancée, Ken, seeing me safely on the bus before leaving.

I take one of the closest seats to the door, the stairs down and below my feet, the sun destined to bake me through the windows once it has fully risen. I am carrying two child’s backpacks, each stuffed with toys and school supplies and toiletries, along with my own clothes and my camera. I am bringing no books to read, only my journal and nine Advent cards with a picture on one side and a one- or two-sentence reflection on the other.

The day wears on, the sweat accumulating on my back and at the bridge of my nose. I see zebras on the side of the road once, and monkeys, and an egret and a cow lying down nose to nose. Short trees cover the oh-so-green rolling hills, and plots of land are marked as “NOT FOR SALE.”

I order the beans and chicken everyone else is ordering when we stop for lunch, and I struggle to understand the heavily accented English around me.

I catch snippets of bus announcements, and after a while, when the conductor mentions Kampala but not Mbale, I start to worry that I am not on the right bus. The conductor knows only a little English, so I call Ken on my basic phone, and he talks to the conductor, and then Irene, my local contact at the center, talks to the conductor, but the accents, rendered difficult in person, are nearly impossible for me to unravel over the phone.

Finally, I break through the communication barrier and learn that my first inkling was correct: We are driving north now, as we should be, but when we are still two hours from Mbale, the bus will not take that turn but will instead veer west, bound for Kampala.

I approach the conductor again with my phone, and after he speaks to Ken or Irene in their shared language, I press the phone to my ear, hearing all but understanding very little. I repeat this scene again and again, sometimes with another traveler instead of the conductor, and I piece together more and more of the plan we’re forming, while simultaneously second-guessing everything I think I know of that plan, worrying that no one else understands the situation as I do, that I will be stranded and forgotten.

But in between the phone calls, in between the stops, while this is still the road I am supposed to be traveling, I have nothing to do but watch and wait.

I see Kenya from my window, hundreds of people living their lives: Women selling potatoes on the side of the road, men sitting on the hillside while their sheep or cows or donkeys graze, children playing soccer and holding hands, people walking, walking, always walking. Sometimes, a child skips instead of walks, and my heart skips too.

When I’m not looking out the window, I pull out those Advent cards from the small cloth purse tucked in my bag. Today is day 7 of Advent, and today’s picture is of a full moon in a star-speckled sky presiding over a mountain range. A lightness at the horizon promises that night will soon end. Alicia Heater drew this picture, and on the other side, Cara Strickland wrote, “In my family, we set out the nativity scene on the mantel, without Jesus. The lonely manger reminds me that in this season we embrace waiting empty.”

I read and reread that card and the six that came before it, filling myself with pictures of small lights in the darkness, of snatches of carols and Bible verses about the Incarnation, of words about hope and waiting, memory and silence.

“‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask the Israelites. ‘Have you forgotten us?’ ask Zechariah and Elizabeth. ‘Have you forgotten me?’ I ask.”

I think about how I’m waiting for this long day to end, and how I forget about people in developing countries until they’re right in front of me.

Advent cards
The Advent cards. Artwork by Alicia Heater, reflections (on back) by Cara Strickland.

We stop at the border near sunset, and the crossing takes hours, standing in lines in first one building and then another, filling out forms and getting my visa stamped, and then lots of waiting, milling around on the red patches of dirt, waiting for our bus and then waiting for our driver.

Night is falling by the time we start up again; I see very little of Uganda in the darkness.

We reach a busy intersection, and the bus slows across from a hotel. They are stopping for me. “This is it!” people are saying, everyone now aware of my plight, my confusion, my anxiety. I gather my bags and thank the conductor. A man walks with me across the street while the bus waits for him.

I sit in the dimly lit lobby, surrounded by my possessions, for another two hours. Others notice me waiting and offer to help, but I am now where I need to be. Finally, Irene arrives and we drive the rest of the way to Mbale. I can now relax. It is nearly midnight, and a trip I thought would take six or eight hours has taken 18.

I fall asleep in my fancy hotel room thinking about the kindness of strangers, and I awaken to palm trees and a fancy buffet breakfast and excitement.

I meet Brenda, a teenager on the verge of adulthood whom I have been sponsoring for more than 10 years. She is almost as tall as my 5 feet, 9 inches. I meet her mother and stepfather and siblings, and I see where she goes to school. She is wearing an ankle-length blue-and-black dress, and I recognize her immediately. I can tell she recognizes me too. She can’t stop smiling. She shows me old letters and pictures I’ve sent her over the years. She speaks less English than I expected, but someone is always there to translate.

For weeks, I didn’t know if my other sponsored child, Remmy, would be able to come. He is from another part of Uganda, at least half a day’s journey away. I was planning to mail him his gifts once I was in the country, but then I found out that they would be able to bring him to Mbale after all. He is here with Godfrey, a former sponsored child himself, and they also came on the bus. He is eight years old and shy and doesn’t smile for the camera at first, but eventually we bond over selfies, and he delights in taking pictures of everyone and everything with my DSLR camera. He is wearing a tan suit and dress shoes, but seems more comfortable, more himself, after he takes off the coat.

We eat a meal together, and the center staff share Brenda’s file with me, and then we take the van to her family’s house and I meet everyone. Remmy is there too, sandwiched on the couch between us and treated as part of the family. They open their presents, and then they give me presents I had not expected: a purse with black and white and red beads that Brenda made for me, and a letter from Remmy’s mother that means more to me than I can say. I wish I could have met his family too.

The day fills me up to the brim, worth every twist and turn it took to get here. Before I know it, I am waiting on the side of the road for my bus. Brenda and Remmy and I sneak in a few more pictures, a few more memories, and then the bus arrives and we say our hasty goodbyes.

With Brenda and Remmy
With Brenda and Remmy, right before I left Mbale.

The return trip is uneventful. I sit next to another American all the way to Nairobi. Through the night, I sleep and I wake and I cross back into Kenya and I sleep again. I am not alone and this time I don’t need my Advent cards to comfort me.

So many of my experiences with Christianity have soured, but the season of Advent remains sweet to me. I have a soft spot for “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and the candles and the waiting. I don’t know how much is true and how much is myth in the traditional Christmas story, but somehow, for a few weeks, I’m able to suspend my cynicism and let my heart expand in the darkness.

Advent has never been more special to me than it was that December in Africa, and especially that day when all I had to keep me company were those cards, when I was waiting in the unknown and could only gaze at the pictures and the words and think about all the others who have also felt lost and forgotten.

 

Alicia Heater’s illustrations can be found at slightlystationery.com, and Cara Strickland’s writing at carastrickland.com.

Dear Adventures in Odyssey: I Love You, But It’s Complicated

“Did you know that Lizzie used to work for Focus on the Family?” he said, she said, with a gleam in their eyes.

It’s not a secret, my internship from last decade, but it doesn’t come up often. When it does, though, it’s a conversation starter, a newsworthy item for my friends to pass along. I don’t fit their picture of someone who once worked there, you see.

Even at the time, I didn’t really think of myself as working for Focus on the Family (FOTF). I was there for Adventures in Odyssey; nothing else at the organization held much appeal.

With the Odyssey crew
With the Odyssey crew at the end of my internship (2009).

Adventures in Odyssey (AIO or Odyssey for short), Focus on the Family’s seminal children’s radio drama, turns 30 this year – today, in fact. On this day in 1987, a 25-minute episode aired about a boy named Davey who feels like a failure until kindly shop owner John Avery Whittaker (“Whit”) helps him realize his worth as they invent something that goes wrong before it goes right. The story, set in the small, Midwestern town of Odyssey, is bookended by a skit with the show’s host, Chris, who tells a story about Abraham Lincoln to reinforce the theme. “Whit’s Flop,” that very first episode, aired one year and four days before I was born, and all my life the show and I have been moving in tandem toward our own milestones.

Can I say I like Odyssey but not Focus on the Family, as I would say I like Jesus but not Christianity?

No, I didn’t think so.

It’s a poor comparison anyway. Odyssey was birthed from Focus on the Family and, like it or not, is a product of its parent organization. Jesus, however, wasn’t always entangled in Christianity, especially not Christianity as we know it today. But that’s another topic for another time.

I do know that I’m not the only one who has been able to partition the two, approving the one and rejecting or ignoring the other. A college roommate was vocal about her dislike for Focus on the Family, but made an exception for AIO.

Even when I was jumping at the chance to be an intern for my beloved radio drama, back in the day when I believed what everyone I knew growing up believed, I was still taken aback by the interview question asking “what my opinions were on the five major issues most important to Focus on the Family.” I bumbled through the answers I knew they expected of me, without much thought as to whether they were really my answers.

Lately, it’s gotten harder to separate the AIO from the FOTF. But once upon a time, it was just Odyssey tapes, Odyssey at 4:30 on the radio, Odyssey before bed and on car rides, and, later, Odyssey on message boards and at events. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

From its earliest days, Adventures in Odyssey has employed some of the best and most versatile voice actors in the business. This is not hyperbole. The show’s main actors include (or have included) Hal Smith from the Andy Griffith Show, who also lent his voice to Beauty and the Beast and An American Tale; Alan Young, best known as Wilbur in Mister Ed and as Disney’s Scrooge McDuck; Will Ryan, featured on The Adventures of Teddy Ruxpin; Katie Leigh of Totally Spies; Chris Anthony, the former voice of Barbie; and Jess Harnell with his hundreds of film credits, including Wakko Warner in Animaniacs. These actors and many others have or had extensive careers, spanning decades, and it still chokes me up how many of these people have passed away since I first “visited” Odyssey. I have met many of the actors as an adult, but I was too late for some of them.

Me and Will Ryan
Meeting Will Ryan, voice of Eugene Meltsner (and writer Paul McCusker, in the background), at the 20th anniversary live show (2008).
Me and Katie Leigh
Spending time with Katie Leigh, voice of Connie Kendall, when she came to speak at my college (2011). Photo by Cara Strickland.

I once joined a Facebook group that probably doesn’t exist anymore, about how “Adventures in Odyssey was the soundtrack of my childhood.” I didn’t grow up with Saturday morning cartoons or Boy Meets World or whatever else my peers were watching in the ‘90s. Odyssey was a cozy backdrop to my life, but it was just a backdrop in many ways, piping from the tape deck on the dining room windowsill while I would color and make lists and watch fat squirrels eat birdseed from the feeder in the backyard, filling my long-term memory and stealing my heart.

Later, I would discover Odyssey’s ability to keep me on the edge of my seat, I would get up early on Saturdays to catch the new shows, I would pull out my old cassettes with stronger feelings, I would catch the pop culture references that had once eluded me. Still later, on the verge of college and the verge of leaving Odyssey behind me, I found a fan message board, and everything dormant and untapped in me found its home and sprang to life.

AIO live show
At the 20th anniversary live show (2008). Pictured from left to right (on the stage): Chuck Bolte, Will Ryan, Katie Leigh, Dave Madden, and Jess Harnell.

In 2008, my first visit to Colorado for the 20th anniversary live show became one of the best weekends of my life. I met the actors, the writers, and fellow fans, many of whom I’m still in touch with. In 2009, I spent my summer interning for Odyssey and administrating the above-mentioned message board, and then returned to college and promptly started a club for fellow fans. We made video reenactments and went on a road trip to Colorado and even brought one of the main actors to our Indiana campus to speak in chapel.

This was the zenith of my love for the show, and my nostalgia for that time of my life is matched only by my nostalgia for the show itself.

I was never on fire for Jesus, not really, but I was on fire for Adventures in Odyssey.

Life seems a simpler place when you know what you love and you have ways of expressing that love.

I wouldn’t go by “Lizzie” now if it weren’t for the show, and I might not be living in Colorado. I might not have changed my major to media communication or worked in radio or spent three months in China or done a whole host of other things. Adventures in Odyssey helped me keep my head above water in times of deep depression. It brought about friendships that never would’ve formed otherwise, leadership roles I never would’ve accepted. Directly and indirectly, I have Odyssey to thank for so much joy in my young adult life. I will never forget this. To me, Adventures in Odyssey is much more than the sum of its dialogue.

Adventures in Odyssey Club party
The Adventures in Odyssey Club at our first Christmas party (2009).
Club with AIO showrunners
The AIO Club meeting showrunners Dave Arnold and Paul McCusker (2011).

And it was a dream come true to meet the people behind the voices and the people who wrote and directed and made magic with sound, to work with them in some cases, to go behind the scenes, to know and be known. They are lovely people, thoughtful and professional and funny.

As for the episodes themselves, the writing quality ebbs and flows, as it does in any long-running production, but I’ve found a lot to appreciate: How to craft a story arc, how to tell a story with sound, how to move forward when the actor who plays the main character dies suddenly.

I haven’t listened to any new episodes for a few years. This is partly because the aura of nostalgia is missing with the newer shows. Every semi-reboot has sawed off more of the glue binding my fate to the fate of the show, which I suppose is only natural when the child grows up but the show does not. I am also skeptical about any program’s ability to carry on indefinitely and still remain a high-quality production. The longer I listen, the more déjà vu I experience.

When I was younger, I hoped Odyssey would still be producing new episodes if and when I had kids. Now, if I ever have kids, I would want them to listen to some episodes but not others.

You see, I am not only out of the target age range, I am also out of the target ideology range. The segment of Christianity that AIO is a spokesperson for is one I am no longer a spokesperson for. I used to think Odyssey was good at avoiding denominational squabbles and sticking to the basics of the faith. However, because this show and its parent organization focus on conservative evangelicals and conservative evangelicals focus on them, it’s a narrow list of squabbles that are avoided, a narrow list of “basics” that are adhered to. Christianity has many different expressions, interpretations, and practices, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to the show.

In this make-believe world, the conservative Christian worldview and its applications have no baggage, no side effects, and no viable alternatives. All the characters are so nice and well-meaning, their faith clean and tidy and straightforward. There are some episodes that show a cognizance of the things we do not know and that hold certainty loosely, but the farther I get from my “on fire” days, the fewer stories I see, past or present, that do a good job managing that tension. More often than not, it’s oversimplifications and assumptions, and even though I find it’s usually lines here and there that trouble me rather than whole storylines or episodes, those lines add up.

This is not an “open letter” or a rant. I am not going line by line through episodes to point out everything that makes me cringe now. I know everyone is doing the best they can with what they have. Odyssey has gotten better over the years at portraying more diverse characters, more diverse families, but I still see room for improvement.

I have deeper problems with Focus on the Family as a whole, of the choices they make politically and the ways they choose to engage culture and the world. Their pictures of the ideal world or family or culture are not my pictures. When I listen to AIO now, I notice things I didn’t notice before.

Sometimes, though, I am noticing good things. I recognize how a three-part mystery from the mid-90s is all about championing differently-abled people. I am moved by unflinching stories about the Underground Railroad and the Fisk Jubilee Singers. I appreciate the nuanced handling of subjects such as forgiveness, doubt, and grief. I go on everyday adventures with the characters as they take vacations and learn how to drive and fall in love. I go on extraordinary adventures with them as they solve decades-old mysteries and foil the bad guys who want to take over the world. And the best of the Bible story adaptations capture a glimmer of why Jesus is so appealing to so many people.

I can’t help it. I will always love Adventures in Odyssey, even when I have trouble liking it. Whit and Connie and Eugene, Tom and Bernard, Jack and Jason, Jimmy and Donna and George and Mary, they all feel like real people, real friends and family members, even when they fight, or maybe especially when they fight. I’ve seen the same warmth and camaraderie in the recording studios as I see in what comes out of those studios, that sense of connection that we all long for, and this is perhaps the epicenter of my nostalgia.

I would like to think that if these characters became living and breathing people, they would not fall prey to the us-versus-them polarization rampant in our country today. I would like to think that I could have a conversation with Whit or Jack, that, despite our differences, we could sit down over milkshakes for a heart-to-heart, and they would really listen, and by understanding more of the Other with our heads and our hearts, we could change the world a little at a time.

Happy birthday, Adventures in Odyssey.

 

All my Odyssey possessions
Posing with all of my Adventures in Odyssey gear for a contest (2008).

Day 16: Was I Ever on Fire?

When We Were On Fire synchroblogMy hands are covering my face. Or they were before I removed them to type these words.

I don’t know where to begin this story of my life in a first-generation Christian family. There is too much, and there is too little. How can I bring it all together into a coherent whole?

Honestly, I don’t like thinking about my childhood. The bad memories overshadow the good ones. Memories of hiding and oh-so-much-guilt and shattered innocence and the ugly mess of my own angry words stick around as the good ones grow dim.

But those aren’t the stories I want to tell you, not now.

This is the story of how I played the perfect little Christian girl, and how, ultimately, that didn’t work.

I memorized the Bible verses, I did all the Sunday school and Awana assignments, I was the “smart, quiet one.” At home, I shouted, I refused, I glared with my fiery firstborn eyes. At church, I was good.

“Your knowledge of the Word always showed in your sharing in class,” my 6th grade Sunday school teacher wrote in the front inside cover of What the Bible is All About (the King James Version, of course) — a prize for my diligent performance.

I “prayed the prayer” at age 3 or 4, but I don’t remember it. I was baptized young and became a church member young. It was what you did. Baptism was supposed to precede communion, I knew, so I always looked down my nose at the unsubmerged kids who helped themselves to the holy bread squares.

I wrote letters to my unsaved grandparents full of Bible verses and the plan of salvation and matter-of-fact statements that they should become Christians and go to church.

My mom had grown up smack-dab in the middle of pain and brokenness, and her modus operandi in parenting was “shelter them!”

So my sister and I wore our matching jean jumpers to our non-denominational-but-basically-Baptist church, around which our social lives were centered. We were homeschooled. We sang, “Stop! And let me tell you, what the Lord has done for me!” until we were sick of it, we listened to Adventures in Odyssey on the radio most afternoons but never got sick of it, and we were not allowed to watch Pokémon or read Harry Potter or listen to ‘N Sync. But that was okay because we believed our parents when they said those things were bad.

In high school, I left my isolated homeschooling life in the woods and transitioned to a Christian school.

Again, I distinguished myself as the “smart, quiet one”; again I tried to please everyone; again I wore a mask.

It was worse this time, though. When I was younger, I sometimes slipped up and sulked at camp or insisted on my own way during a piano lesson. But in high school, I got better and better at adding mildness to my list of accomplishments. I was the “nice, smart, quiet girl.”

Life rolled along, and I rolled with it. I was living a fully inherited faith with a fully intact mask.

When the full weight of this hit me my freshman year of college, I felt like a failure. I had never “made my faith my own.” My testimony wasn’t victorious. I couldn’t think of any real spiritual turning points.

Insecurity had always been my faithful companion, but college was the worst. I never despised or compared or isolated myself as much as I did then. I was sure that if people knew the “real me,” they would reject me. I couldn’t open up, I couldn’t take off the mask, and I was depressed. I wasn’t the person I wanted to be, and I was starting to believe I never would be.

And today?

I have hope again. I took off my mask, and nobody ran away. I asked hard questions, and I didn’t shock anyone. But even if I had shocked or they had run, that wouldn’t have changed my identity as a person of worth. I’m finally learning who I am, and I finally like myself. But God … he seems so much more confusing and uncertain than he used to, and so does, well, everything.

I want to be on fire, I want to “taste and see,” but I won’t fake it again. I won’t be the perfect little Christian girl again.

The journey continues. I am here, and I am me, and right now, that is enough.

This is day 16 of 31 Days in the Word … and this is also a synchroblog to celebrate the release of Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were On Fire. Click here and scroll down to read the stories of others’ faith journeys.

Exploring Doubt, Part 2

While this blog is most immediately a follow-up to my last blog, Doubt, the Uneasy Visitor, it so happens that I wrote a blog about doubt two years ago as well, which complements both of these.

More than one hundred people were in Coventry, England, for a DTS Gathering that week in early spring. I was one of them. We worshiped together, listened to inspiring speakers, then stepped out into the city each day to bring the love of Jesus to people in all sorts of ways.

That’s when doubt hit me. I suppose it had been growing for awhile, but the stresses and challenges of this new, unfamiliar environment brought them to the forefront of my heart in a more isolating, painful way than ever before. One night, I found myself wracked with despair and swallowed sobs as I lay on my makeshift bed on the church floor. It was one of the darkest nights of the soul I have ever experienced.

I kept my struggle largely to myself for the rest of the week, but when I finally opened up with others on my team after we returned to our base, our home, well, it was the best thing I could’ve done. The prayers, the knowledge that I wasn’t alone in this, and the honest conversations brought clarity and comfort as we prepared to go on outreach. But that wasn’t the end of it.

As I shared my faith on outreach with individuals and groups, I found doubt creeping back into my life. “Do you really believe what you’re trying to get others to believe?” it asked in its hissing, accusatory way.

But there was a difference between the first attack and this second one. My relationship with God was stronger this time around. I had been learning what it meant to rely on God, to bring everything to Him. So I brought my doubts to Him, I talked with others sooner than later, and, all in all, I learned through experience the right way to deal with doubt.

Here’s some of what I learned:

  • Go on the offensive against doubt, starting with your strongest ally: God. Pray against the doubt and ask God for more of Him. Seek God even when the feelings aren’t there, even when you feel like you just don’t have enough faith. Because faith, like love, isn’t a feeling, but a choice.
  • Doubt can be a lonely battle, but it doesn’t have to be! Be real with other people (as well as God) about what you’re going through, and get their advice and prayers. Don’t just stay in your own mind, introspective and alone. Sometimes you can be your own worst enemy.
  • The worst thing you can do when you struggle with doubt and unbelief is to pretend that you aren’t struggling, that everything’s okay, because then you’ll really start going through the motions and feeling like a hypocrite. Eventually, it will build and build until it explodes in a crisis of faith. Recognize the signs and learn how to deal with it early on.
  • Remember what God has done in your life and in others’ lives in the past. Just because He doesn’t feel real now doesn’t nullify everything you’ve seen Him do.
  • If you grew up in a Christian home, recognize that it’s normal to wrestle with and question what you’ve always been told is true. That’s part of making your faith your own. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions, but don’t stop there. Struggle well.
  • DON’T GIVE UP

It’s not about manufacturing feelings that feel like faith, but coming to God as you are, and seeking Him, and asking Him for more of Himself.

Jeremiah 29:13: “You will seek me [God] and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

Doubt, the Uneasy Visitor

He comes, knocking at the door — softly at first, then more insistently.

You can’t just ignore it. He will keep knocking until the knocking turns into pounding, and if you still refuse to answer, he will break in while you are sleeping and steal some of your most valuable treasures. And then he will disappear into the night, never to be found, never forced to relinquish what he stole. You will have to go the long, hard way around to replace it.

So the only option is to answer the door. You can call the police, but he will know if you do, and will vanish into the night. He is good at vanishing.

Speak to him at the door or let him in for a cup of tea. Allow him to take the conversation places where you in your sheltered, cozy little home have never dared to venture. He wants to convince you that he’s right, that the gaps in your knowledge are your downfall, but be cautious. He is biased. Hear him out on your own terms, bring others into the conversation — particularly a certain other Resident of the house. When you face him instead of cowering under the covers, you will discover the chinks in his armor. Sometimes fear of the thing is more pernicious than the thing itself. Doubt is not the bastion of truth, but he isn’t the devil either.

One word of caution: Don’t invite him into your home to stay. Don’t give him his own room, whether in a forgotten little attic corner or in the luxurious guest room. Because that will not be enough for him. He will not be content to stay there, but will want to take over the whole house. Offer him a drink, talk to him, and then send him on his way. He may come back — in fact, he probably will — but the second time won’t be such a shock, and the third, even less so. We all have our burdens to bear.

Don’t be afraid to speak with this uneasy visitor, just make sure he isn’t your only outside influence. Another’s knocks are less insistent, more gentleman-like, but should be equally attended to. Listen to His truth. It’s not always comfortable either. And He should get not only His own room, but free access to the entire house.

Some think that this isn’t the right response to Doubt, that he shouldn’t be “let in” at all, that the heavenly police can and will bind him and take him away while he’s still on your doorstep. And maybe you’re right; feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section. In my next blog, I will unpack this (imperfect) illustration a bit more by sharing some of my own journey with Doubt.

DTS: Coming to the Altar

When we walked into the classroom that Friday morning, we saw a big, white sheet hanging near the back wall with a midsized wooden cross propped up in front of it.

We were nervous, excited, hopeful. But not surprised.

Our speaker, Mark, had been preparing us for this all week. Work duties were cancelled. Local outreach was cancelled. Instead of the usual three hours of lectures, Friday, today, was to be an all-day experience of finding freedom in Christ, of stepping deeper into intimacy with God, deeper into the glory of the tabernacle in all of its Old Testament foundations and New Testament fulfillment.

While that Friday was the pinnacle of intensity, the whole week had been a whirlwind of color and noise and passion. Mark clocked in more hours of lectures than any other speaker we’ve had before or since, but that wasn’t his legacy. He wasn’t afraid to shout, or look ridiculous, or even offend people if that’s what he thought it would take to reach them … if that’s what he felt God wanted him to do. Sometimes, he was so frank and expressive and persistent that we couldn’t help but laugh, and love him for saying it like it was. Other times, he was so frank and expressive and persistent that we were turned off, offended, even upset. His lectures were chockfull of content, but he spoke with an urgency intended to shake us and make this week, the only week he had with us, be five days we would remember. And, love him or hate him, he succeeded.

“What do you want to get out of today?” he asked Friday morning.

Freedom. More love. Revelation. Transformation.

“Things happen in one day,” he stressed, urging us not to just wish or hope that God would do something, or start something, but to desperately want it. Expect it. Believe it. And God would honor those desires of our hearts.

After this beginning, we filed past the staff members and into the classroom, giggling a little as we took part in the hongi (“sharing of breath”), a nose-to-nose Maori greeting.

We started at the gate with thanksgiving. Songs of worship gave way to sharing something God had done in each of our lives over the past few weeks. Then, we moved into the outer courts of praise. The English students and staff members welcomed us the traditional English way: with cups of tea and handshakes (minus the tea). We turned to each other next, taking mere greetings to the next level. Love through embraces, encouragement through words, and truth through the attributes of God we’d seen in each other.

Then, we began to step out of our comfort zones.

We moved to one end of the classroom, across from the sheet and the cross. Between those objects and us, right in the center of the room, stood half a dozen chairs back-to-back. One by one, we were to climb on the chairs, speak out or shout out words of praise and acknowledgements of who God is, then climb over to the other side. Once there, we could spend as much time in front of the cross as we needed to. Those who felt like they couldn’t make it across would receive help.

One of the staff members led the way, then I stepped out. Before I could climb on the chair, however, Mark had a few words to say to me: He was proud of my courage in being the first girl to come forward, but encouraged me to take my time. I slowed down a little, then clambered up and shouted one “GOD IS…” sentence as the person before me had done.

“Keep going!” Mark said, so I did, and was up there another minute or two before crossing the barrier and kneeling before the cross. While it was definitely a moment of stepping out of my comfort zone, I’ll admit that the music in the background assuaged some of my nervousness. Perhaps it would’ve been better had the music not been there … had our raw voices been the only sounds piercing the silence. Because of the music, too, I had trouble hearing what a lot of the others said, but it was still a powerful experience.

Two people needed to be helped across. One was raised up and carried on the shoulders of others. Another gingerly crossed the wall with the supporting hand of a friend on each side. I was one of those friends.

From here, we moved to the altar to make two offerings to the Lord. We spent the most time here, comforted by the warmth of the blaze, but also afraid of what would be required of us. What would happen when we placed certain items in the flames? Important items, treasured dreams … secret items, shameful deeds. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first was the burnt offering of public surrender at the cross. Some brought passports, money, and other important objects to either symbolically lay down at the cross or give away to others (with the exception of the passports, of course).

I didn’t have any physical mementos of my offering, but I offered up myself, my future, my time, and my right to marry.

Part two, the sin offering of public repentance, came after our lunch break. This was the part I had been dreading, and not just that week. In conversations with other YWAMers over the last year or two, I had learned that this kind of baring of one’s soul happened on DTSes. For months, I had been dreading this, but knew that it was necessary. For freedom’s sake.

This offering of repentance lasted nearly three hours. One by one, after a sharp intake of breath and a painful hesitation, each of us stepped forward into the middle of the room near the cross. A backpack filled with firewood was provided for those of us who felt the need to physically carry a burden as we confessed our sins, then to lay that burden down after repenting of those sins.

I won’t recount what anyone else said, only to say that all were vulnerable and real in what they shared, which gave me the courage I needed to be equally real. No one was forced to speak, but everyone did.

For me, it was a huge step. In the past, I had shrunk from so many similar opportunities. Will I ever be able to be completely open in certain areas? I had often wondered, my heart sinking as the years passed but the morass within me never did. If left to its own whims, my mouth seemed destined to remain forever closed. Hence the strange combination of dread and hope within me as this day drew near.

After we’d repented, Mark would often share encouraging or challenging words with us, or invite others to pray for us. Here’s some of what he said to me then, and later that evening: “At first, you were just sitting there, but then you came up not just once, but a second time and a third time. I’ve been watching you all week. You know that. I don’t have a daughter, but if you were my daughter, I would be so proud of you. God’s going to do great things through you in Asia.”

Our afternoon of repenting was somber, heavy, quiet. Then, after a break for dinner, the music was switched back on. When I returned to the classroom, the building was pulsating with worship. I felt drained. The afternoon especially had taken a lot out of me.

From here on, I’m not completely sure which activity correlated with which aspect of the tabernacle, but I’ll give it my best shot. We reached into the brazen laver (washing basin) of the Word through praying for each other and worshiping. I especially appreciated these prayers, and the love they exemplified, after such a heavy emotional and spiritual ordeal.

The golden candlestick is the Holy Spirit. The staff anointed our foreheads, our wrists, and our feet with oil and prayed for us individually, that the Holy Spirit would come upon us. Following this, we listened for words and pictures from the Holy Spirit about specific people, then shared the messages with those people. Some of us (me included) didn’t hear anything conclusive, a recurring issue for me that has been frustrating and discouraging.

I’ve since realized that my attitude, often a mixture of fear and unbelief, has likely been at the root of it and other self-denigrations. Too often, it’s all about me and what I can or cannot do. Too easily, I’m resigned to the patterns and failures of the past, believing the lies that I’m too weak to ever change. Too quickly, I let hope harden into cynicism.

Too wonderfully, I’m here for six months learning about the God who is faithful and makes all things new.

After the anointing, we took Communion at the Table of Showbread. When taking Communion at home, the congregation is almost always silent. Here in England, though, whether in a church or YWAM setting, the person passing me the bread and the cup says “The body of Christ, broken for you” for the first, and “The blood of Christ, shed for you” for the second. And then I say those words to the person next to me. It makes it so much more real and personal.

The final four elements of the tabernacle were the altar of incense (prayer and intercession), the veil (disobedience/alienation), the ark of the covenant (Holy Spirit – the presence of God in us), and the Cloud of Glory (the Holy Spirit above us), but they weren’t as strongly emphasized, and, if I’m remembering correctly, all that happened after Communion was worship and a debrief that involved sharing our thoughts about the day and praying.

We finished at 10 p.m.

What a day. What a week.

I felt absolutely drained by the end of it, and because I spent the weekend away from Holmsted and without much time to myself, I didn’t have a chance to process it all before the next week started. That threw off my whole week. Since then, though, I’ve finally gotten the chance to sit down with this wealth of material and memory and try to sort through it all.

Now, however, it’s been more than two weeks since that unforgettable Friday, and I’ve been wrestling with what it means, what it looks like, to continue living in that freedom. I do know one thing, though: I can’t just live off of that experience. Been there, done that. After an incredible few months of spiritual growth in 2010, I stopped walking forward. I basked in the glow of what God had done then instead of seeking a deeper intimacy with Him now. I had no accountability, nor did I seek out deeper human relationships. Essentially, I knew the key to a deeper relationship with God in theory (still a major breakthrough), but I stopped applying it and barely looked at my relationships with others. I learned that I couldn’t live on old revelations and unapplied knowledge forever, though, when I returned to school in the fall. All the familiar challenges, insecurities and fears hit me again, and I found myself unequipped to deal with them.

I don’t want to do that again. Now, I’ve discovered a new freedom, a truth to the lie that people wouldn’t love me if they knew the darkness within. But you know what? My value in God’s eyes doesn’t change based on others’ perceptions. He knows the truth, has always known the truth, and still, He loves.

But how to walk in that freedom? What do I do to live each day in light of my value in God’s eyes, to know not just in my head that I am free and beloved, but to know it in my heart and press forward confidently in that knowledge?

Maybe it’s as simple as my revelations two years ago: Focus on God, not on the things I don’t like about myself, and seek Him not as a means to an end, but as an end in Himself. To that fundamentally important ambition, I would add this: To give the love of God to others, and to find people to grow and share with, for mutual edification.

While transformation is a process, our generation is “quick to repent and slow to obey.” So stand up, fix your eyes on your destination, and start moving. Say, “Today is the day. God will change me. I will believe this and will step out in obedience even though I can’t see the big picture.” Do this again the next day, as you wake up bleary-eyed and bewildered. And the day after that, and the day after that.

DTS: Living on Many Prayers

Now that we’re at the halfway point of lecture phase, it seems appropriate to reference Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” in the title. Rather than one prayer, though, I’m living on many: prayers from California, prayers from Indiana, prayers from the classroom, the dorm rooms, the prayer room here at Holmsted.

Some of those are my prayers. A few days ago, I spent an hour and a half in the musty chairs of the concrete-yet-comfortable prayer room downstairs crying out to God … and listening.

For me, this halfway point is a time of introspection and evaluation. Am I putting as much into this DTS as I can, or am I spending too much time visiting the surrounding towns and cities, posting pictures online, watching movies? Even though I have worship almost every day, along with three hours of lectures and other small groups and scheduled activities, I don’t want to act like I’m on holiday the rest of the time. I came for God, not for Brighton or London, movies or shows, audio or video.

And yet, while spending personal time with God is unquestionably vital, so is living in community … and not only living in community, but fully engaging in that community. Wednesday was a perfect example of a day that was joy-filled largely because of the people here. I prayed in a small group for an hour in the morning, practiced Chinese in the afternoon with a couple others, talked about spiritual struggles with one of my roommates while washing the dinner dishes, and, finally, ended the day huddled around a laptop with a few of the girls watching a couple episodes of the Pride and Prejudice miniseries. And I’m not even counting the many conversations I had apart from these larger events.

But as wonderful as it is to continually spend time with people I feel comfortable with, and even more so to discuss matters of the heart and the Spirit with them, I can’t live on people alone.

I need time to process (a buzzword around here) what we’ve been learning in lectures. I need to rest without turning my brain off. I need to listen and obey. I need to think and feel and speak.

Last week was Relationships & Identity Week, the most challenging, intense week yet. Normally, we have about 15 hours of lectures in five days. That week, we had about 18 hours of lectures in four days, and then an additional 13 hours on Friday. Friday, however, wasn’t a day of lectures, but of “approaching the altar.” I can’t say any more without describing the whole thing, and I can’t do the whole thing justice right now, so I won’t try yet. But you will hear about it sometime soon, and about the rest of that week.

This week, we learned about how the Bible relates to all spheres of society, not just the church, and how the split thinking many of us have grown up with (Christian vs. secular) isn’t in keeping with the character of God. We’ve been analyzing passages from the Pentateuch, and it has been a rich experience of seeing God in new ways, with specific examples. It makes me want to do an SBS (School of Biblical Studies) with YWAM …

So that is a brief summary of the last two weeks, but my point in that summary is that there are so many things to take in, so many verses to look up, so many things to dive deeper into on my own time. Obviously, I can’t research everything I want to research right now. However, I want to take the lectures further out of the classroom than I have so far. It’s not too late – I still have five weeks left! God is doing so much here, and I don’t want to miss any of it.

One of the biggest frustrations of my life has been not doing “the good I want to do” (Romans 7:19). That doesn’t have to be my story any longer, though. The page is about to turn, and any number of plot twists could be waiting on the other side.

DTS: Pictures of God

I wrote this during a special “make something for God” worship session here at Holmsted, then shared it with the group…

Sometimes, when I’m trying to worship but feel flooded with distractions, I close my eyes and try to focus on a picture of You in my mind. Until now, that picture has been of You seated on a throne, reflecting glory, and me, standing at the other end of the long room, looking at You from a distance.

I didn’t realize until yesterday how impersonal that picture was. Maybe sometimes in that picture, I’ve ventured closer to You, moving down the velvet-carpeted aisle along with other worshippers, but I don’t remember You ever leaving Your throne and coming to me. But that is what You do, isn’t it?

Certainly many songs describe Your glory and majesty and radiance, all if which are inseparable from who You are. But You also reach out to me. You understand where I’m coming from, and Your throne is a throne of love as well as glory.

I’m still working through what the new “picture” in my mind should look like. Maybe of You, as a shepherd in a field. Maybe of You taking my hand. Or maybe I shouldn’t limit myself to one picture, one image, one view.

You are there and yet here. You are king and yet You serve. You are mightiest and yet You love the most. You are all.

DTS: Hearing God’s Voice

I came to England with several hopes for these six months. One of them was to experience God in undeniable ways. That desire grew during our first week, as “hearing the voice of God” became a major topic of conversation and practical application.

In an upcoming blog, I will describe in detail a “day in the life” here at Holmsted. For now, however, all you need to know is that we spend a significant amount of time in intercession, and in sharing things that the Lord reveals to us. What does intercession look like here? Well, sometimes we’re in a large group all praying and listening for a word from God on a certain issue, and those who get a picture, a word, or a verse from God share them. Other times, we’re in smaller groups doing essentially the same thing.

And just how do we hear so directly from God? We received some teaching on that very subject during orientation week, the crux of which is a multi-step process of preparing one’s heart to hear from God. The steps are as follows: coming to God with a clean heart, inviting the Holy Spirit in, submitting our thoughts to God, silencing the enemy, thanking God for what He’s about to do, and then, finally, waiting and listening.

So far, it hasn’t really worked for me. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

At first, though, I felt a bit pressured to “hear something.” I don’t doubt that God can and does speak to people directly. When I hear stories of how God told someone something at just the right time, or how He woke someone else up in the middle of the night to pray for a specific person, I don’t disbelieve them. However, God doesn’t speak to everyone in the same way … right?

It’s one thing to come together for a prayer meeting and be open to hearing and following God’s leading regarding what or who to pray for. It seems like quite another, however, to follow a series of steps during a practice session with the expectation that at least some of us will hear something from God. Is this a good way to practice listening for God’s voice, or does it teach us that we should be able to hear from God whenever we want?

For everyone who genuinely hears something from God, I feel like there inevitably will be someone who didn’t hear anything, someone who just heard his or her own thoughts, and someone who just doesn’t know. Our God is not a God of confusion. Hearing God’s voice isn’t a game we play, where some are winners and others … well, they’ll get better with practice.

Then again, I don’t come from a charismatic background, and it’s only week two. Maybe my concerns are for naught, and eventually we all will hear from God, and we will realize that He does want to speak to us in this way, and that we just needed to know how to listen for His voice.

But back to the present. While I haven’t heard from God during these small groups, I’m learning that hearing from God at different times and in different ways is okay. In fact, it’s beautiful.

Five days ago, I had a dream that I’m sure was from God. I dreamed that I was talking to a friend of mine whom I haven’t spoke with or thought of in a long time. In my dream, she was telling me about some things she was struggling with. When I woke up, I knew that the dream was from God, and I immediately began praying for her. I don’t know if all the “facts” of the dream were correct, but the prayer points fit with what I know of her.

During these times of practicing intercession, I will continue working on setting aside what distracts me and focusing on God. I will listen, all the while praying for discernment and believing that He may very well speak to me in this setting. However, I don’t want to “make things up” or share when I’m not sure. I’d rather God spoke to me in His timing, not mine. And if His timing is 2 o’clock on Mondays, I’m all for it.