Letter to My(self) Younger Sister

My Marine FMLSMy little sister graduated from boot camp as a United States Marine last month, so this month she enters combat school to continue her training. I am thankful that God gave me a love of writing! I was able to write her several letters while she was in boot camp (she told me she got more from me than she did from anyone else), and I am undertaking a just-as-intense letter writing regime to support her during combat school.

This weekend, as I finished my letter to her, I realized that much of what I’d written was really stuff that I had recently learned that I wished I’d learned sooner. Stuff about God and people and life. It was a letter my younger self would’ve needed.

I decided to copy the letter into a document and save it. But there are so many “younger sisters” out there…

Dear Sister,

I don’t really know what’s going through your mind this weekend, but I want you to know that, this Valentine’s Day, you are very loved! By me and by many people in your life! I realize that you are probably not getting as many letters in combat school as you did in boot camp from the people who swore they were your forever friends, but don’t let it get to you.

First of all, recognize that your life is like a tapestry. Some people in it are the consistent border threads that run through all of your life, and some people are the brilliant flashes of color, threads that are only in one part of the tapestry. All of the threads make you unique, make you who you are as a person. You wouldn’t be you if any of them were non-existent, temporary, or permanent.

Bohemian Tapistry FMLS
Bohemian Tapestry

Second of all, if people tell you that they’ll always be there for you and they’re not, it’s their loss, not yours. It has to do with their personal character, not yours. It’s not that you’re not worth their time or that they don’t love you or that they don’t think of you ever; it’s simply that they haven’t had the maturity and the circumstances necessary to cultivate true loyalty and commitment, two traits that I remember you saying were planted and developed in you while you were in boot camp. Extend to these people the grace of a second chance. Give them other opportunities to learn to be loyal and committed. Let them still be in your life so you can be a model and a teacher of these two character traits for them.

Finally, grab for God. Remember that leap of faith swing you told me about on the challenge course? Going through life with God is a lot like that sometimes; you leap and grab, realizing that He’s there, that He’ll hold you – but you don’t get to see Him or what He’s doing or what He’s planned all of the time. I hope you still have the camo Bible you wrote all over. You should look up Job 23:8-10: “I go forward, but He is not there, and backward, but I do not see Him. On the left hand when He is working, I don’t see Him, and when I turn to the right, I don’t see Him there, either. But He knows the way that I take; when He has tried me, I will come out as gold.” This verse captures how I feel about God a lot when I look back on my life.

You’ve got to remember all that He’s already brought you through. Look back on your boot camp experience and reflect on the times you were so sure that you weren’t going to make it, when you were standing on those footprints in front of your drill instructor’s door at night, hand raised to knock, question, and quit, but you didn’t. You just didn’t. Maybe you thought it was all you, but know that it was all God. He wants you right where you are right now in this moment.

You know, God’s really a Marine; He lived and died by Semper Fi. You can call Him that when you talk to Him because He is. It’s great to have a personal name for God.

The reason why I write and keep journals about how God came through for me in the past is because those situations show me His character, and His character never changes.You can hold onto His character and re-claim verses and remember situations because He doesn’t change. He’s the loyal, committed, consistent thread in your life that holds you together, ever if you didn’t ever see Him in the past, or you saw Him presented the wrong way as a child.

You can hold onto His character and re-claim verses and remember situations because He doesn’t change.

Since my four year meeting God date just passed, I’ve found myself considering where God was in the jumble of childhood and challenging life circumstances. Accept that you didn’t see Him, accept that you didn’t always know where He was or what He was doing in the You-Are-Loved-MGmiddle of the action, but don’t ever believe that He wasn’t there.

So Valentine’s Day …don’t be lonely because you are loved.

Love, your older sister

Meeting God

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo Sistine Chapel
The Creation of Man by Michelangelo Sistine Chapel

On February 7th, four years ago, my older sister introduced me to God in our college cafeteria.

I thought I’d already met God, but I was wrong.

As a child, I tried to be a good, obey my parents, and do whatever the occasion required of me to make people happy. By making my parents happy and by making others happy, I was making God happy. If I made God happy, he showed he was pleased by making good things happen; if I did not make God happy, he showed he was displeased by making bad things happen. I felt like those ideals were what I was taught, so my philosophy of God didn’t go much further.

We attended a couple different churches when I was a child, and also, spent some time church-less.

At the end of a service one Sunday, my mom asked;

“Don’t you want to go to heaven?”

Of course I did if it would make her happy with me.

“You should go up and pray. Do you need help?”

I was embarrassed, but proud. “No. That’s ok.”

I got down on my knees in front of the read pew and devoutly closed my eyes:
I’m making my mom happy.

That’s all I remember about the moment that I would hear fed back to me as my “salvation testimony.” I couldn’t remember God crossing my mind that day at all.

God crossed my mind most often on the bad days, when everything went horribly wrong, and someone was mad at me, and I was hurt and scared.

I would go and curl up in the corner of the yard next to the back deck, sitting on the rocks, frightened begging, and ask God:

“I tried so hard to make You happy. Why don’t You love me?”

I always gave God a second chance to change his mind about his feelings toward me:

“I don’t know what I did, but I didn’t mean to make it happen, and I’ll never do it again if it makes You this unhappy. Can You just come down and hug me? Please?”

He never did.

I stopped asking. I stopped going to church, and I stopped trying to make people happy with me.

Not too many years later, I’d slipped far, demanding of my older sister, an amazing strong Christian who consistently set a high standard and a good example;

“Why should I even care what some stupid man did 2,000 years ago?”

I hated men. Honestly, I hated everybody. I’d formed my own brand of religious philosophy:

I hate everybody, and everybody hates me.

My “church service” became doing whatever I could to take care of myself and protect myself because no one else would.

God never struck me dead for hating him, so I believed in his indifference.
I didn’t reject God’s existence; life doesn’t make any sense without understanding a supernatural force is behind the world. No, I just assumed that any God floating around out there had no interest in me. After all, whoever God was, he or she or it hadn’t been into me when I was good nor when I was bad.

I was worse than miserable, and my older sister convinced me to leave home for college.

Skip ahead to the college cafeteria with my older sister, talking about something she’d learned about the creation of the world in one of her doctrine classes.

And God came into my mind.

In my mind’s eye, I saw the world suspended in space, and a hand, two fingers, reaching out to smush it like a grape. I could feel the great and good desire behind that hand, aching to destroy it and start all over again. Like the way artists feel when they paint a masterpiece and some bystander purposely smears it.

But God held the world gently, never crushing it.

World_in_God__s_hand_by_Code_Scythe
“World in God’s Hands” by Code Scythe

I formed two concrete beliefs about God in that moment; God is love and God is forgiveness, but not the way I’d known love and forgiveness.

Love means self-control.

If you truly love someone, you control your needs, desires, wants, and rights when you are around them for their benefit, even if it puts you in a hard, hurtful position. God loved me because God controlled the desire and the right to crush me. For my benefit.

Forgiveness means double-hurt.

When you forgive someone, you can’t just throw the words, “I forgive you” at them. You forgive them by not only accepting the hurt they’ve inflicted on you originally, but also by absorbing your desire, your “right,” to avenge yourself. In essence, you take what they did to hurt you, and you let it hurt you again. You pay for the fact that they hurt you.

I’d wounded Love, and then, I’d stiff-armed Forgiveness.

I realized how rare love and forgiveness are when I saw their true meanings. The realization helped me see God, not as myself or anyone else, but as completely Other.

God is not a man.

The world’s presentation of God as a man confused me as a child. I perceived God as some kind of superman figure: incredibly strong, able to read minds, invisible, full of superpowers, capable of blessing and cursing everyone.

But God isn’t. God isn’t even some ultimate perfection of what mankind would look like at the peak of righteous faultlessness. God is completely Other.

Grasping a handful of the Otherness of God freed me to throw away the motherload of ideas I’d held about why God hadn’t seemed to love me and be around for me. God didn’t operate on my time schedule, and I couldn’t compare God with my dad or my mom or any other person I’d ever known.

God is Love.
God is Forgiveness.
God is Other.

In less than a minute, I knew three things about God.

It wasn’t even like I had a choice whether to accept or reject God. I never remember thinking, “Now I can accept God, or I can reject God.” God was suddenly in my mind, and everything was suddenly different.

“Help me!” I panicked, grabbing my older sister’s hand. “I just met God, and I don’t know what to do!”

Somewhere in my childhood I’d learned the Romans Road and John 3:16, but I couldn’t remember a single verse.

My older sister was so excited. She was jumping up and down and crying. I was crying. Something felt different, but I couldn’t even put my finger on it. We prayed together, but I can’t even remember what I said.

It was the week before Valentine’s Day, and I felt incredibly loved.

You-Are-Loved-MGI only knew four things about God, but I had a feeling that the quantity of things I’d learn about God would grow inexhaustibly.

“Going to heaven” never even played a role in my real introduction to God. I mean, what kind of genuine relationship starts just because you’re so pumped to see someone’s house? Heaven didn’t occur to me until several weeks after I met God, and then I was, like;

“Oh yeah! That’s right! Now I get to see heaven.”

It’s kinda like the sprinkles on top of the frosting already on my cake.

Extravagant Surrendered Worship

ESW2Most parents plan names for their children before they’re born. Children are named after relatives or influencers, or names are chosen because of their meaning and sound. Sometimes alternate spellings are planned to ensure that the name is pronounced correctly and the lettering is unique.

I was named after my great-grandmother who died before my birth: Anna (pronounced with a long ‘a’ European-style because my great-grandmother was Polish). I was Anna before Frozen made the name famous.

Throughout my childhood, I was usually told that my name was pretty whenever I was introduced. But I wasn’t the biggest fan of Anna; it was too simple.

Once, during a break-the-ice competition in class, a teacher asked us who could create the most words using just the letters of our names. Want to guess who lost?

After I met God, I discovered that Anna means “God is gracious.” I realized that God has already shown me, and continues to show me, incredible grace. I embraced my name and purposed to demonstrate more grace toward others.

I found out that, because of the silent “h” in Spanish, Hannah and Anna are both pronounced the same way in Spanish-speaking countries. I researched Hannah from the Bible, considering her my namesake.

Hannah’s story impacts me because of how much she shows us about prayer. I’m surprised I haven’t heard a more messages on this passage, focusing on prayer in our relationship with God.

Hannah is one several barren women God brings to our attention in the Bible. Sarah and Rachel both find alternate solutions for their lack of children (Gen. 16: 1-2; Gen. 30: 1-4), and their husbands go along with their plans. However, Hannah never creates a plan; she turns to God for her solution.

Hannah is so vulnerable – she’s crushed by Peninnah and can’t hide it. We’re often taught to conceal our emotions with sayings like, “Never let them see you cry” and “Quit being a baby.”

But Hannah? She’s destroyed by Peninnah’s comments and Elkanah’s lack of support.
Her vulnerability doesn’t stop there; she’s not a wounded animal, hiding away, hardening her heart. She goes to God.

ESW1
“Woman Grieving” by Cynthia Angeles

First, Hannah surrenders herself to God in prayer, begging Him for her desires. Eli thinks she’s drunk because of her passionate conversation with God. She freely expresses herself in prayer, being honest and intimate. She weeps.

She lays everything on the line – even what she doesn’t have – and she makes a bold promise to God.

Sometimes we have this idea that to beg God for our desires is selfish. We fail to “be who we are” with God. We forget that God tells us to ask Him for anything because He wants to give us good gifts. He is thrilled when He can shower us with gifts and fulfill the desire of our hearts.

Hannah has no problems with being who she is with God. She doesn’t even introduce her prayer with a few sentences:

“There are lots of other people in worse situations. I’m going to pray for them before I pray for myself. I know that You’re powerful and I’m lowly, so I’m not going to even bother asking. It’s been years and I haven’t had a child, so it must not be Your will for me to have a child.”

God honors Hannah’s request. He gives her a son. And Hannah gives her son right back to God.

The name that she chooses for her son reflects God’s graciousness to her: Samuel, “asked of God” or “requested from God.” She knows that she’s barren. She doesn’t think that she got lucky – she knows that Samuel is God’s miracle.

Second, Hannah doesn’t just surrender herself praying to God for her desires; she surrenders herself to God in sacrificing to Him. Her worship of God is extravagant.

Because a woman’s reputation was often unjustly measured by her ability to have children in those days, Samuel would’ve been considered proof that Hannah was finally “right with God” and “blessed by God.” Motherhood was a married woman’s identity.

By bringing Samuel to serve in the temple, Hannah was sacrificing her identity, her connection to an inheritance Elkanah would leave his sons, even her future security since a woman’s sons were tasked with providing for her after she was widowed.

Hannah gives God more than her child and her identity as a woman, both already great human sacrifices. She brings additional offerings to the temple: a bull, flour, and wine – presumably for a burnt offering, a grain offering, and a drink offering. These things are above and beyond what she would’ve already offered to God for giving her a son in the first place. Hannah’s sacrifice of herself and her son doesn’t stop her from giving materially to God – it only increases her desire to give.

When we truly sacrifice ourselves to God, our excitement to surrender everything else to Him grows.

ESW3
“At Prayer” by Edwin Long

Finally, Hannah surrenders herself in praise to God. She gives God all the credit for Samuel and for what takes place in her life after Samuel. She brags about who God is and what He’s done.

Her prayer is similar to Mary’s Magnificant. Both woman acknowledge how they feel in God’s presence, give God all the credit for what has happened in their lives, praise God in beautiful terms, talk about their humble condition, and marvel in God’s power, justice, and omnipresent control.

Glancing into Hannah’s prayer life inspires me. My desire is to emulate my namesake’s extravagant, sacrificial spirit of worship to God.

 

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For this post, I chose artwork which I felt captured Hannah’s emotions and devotion to God in worship. The pencil drawing at the top of the post is off of Pinterest, but I believe this site contains the original artwork:

http://mery.jp/41953

My Own Ugly-Beautiful Cross

Luke 9:23 – And Jesus said to all, If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.

Black Cross of New Mexico
An item placed front and center on a church altar.
A 3D bumper decal.
Stamped on a graphic tee.
Clasped in praying hands with fistfuls of beads.
On the delicate silver chain around a girl’s neck.
Dangling from a woman’s earlobe.
Captured in a gorgeous oil painting, stark onyx against the pastel lines of dawn, like Georgia O’Keeffe’s pictured “Black Cross of New Mexico”.
In today’s culture, the cross is beloved, hailed and promoted as symbolic and claimed as the icon for several different reasons and movements, even by those ignorant of its true meaning.
But it wasn’t always.
In college, I was forced to read a long, detailed article on the methods of Roman crucifixion. At the end of the article, I wanted to wrap my angry hands around the warped minds that contrived this worst-possible-way to die and choke them. Words fail to detail the pain of the crucifixion.
Yet, God created those minds that warped themselves toward the study of painful deaths. He created the mouth of the one who kissed Him in betrayal. He created the hands that nailed Him to the cross, and the hands that attempted to wash themselves of His blood. He created the people who committed the sins that killed Him, including me.
Why?
Because He loves us and hates sin and wants to make all things new.
God is occupied with the redemption of the world. Yes, He’s redeemed His people, but He’s also in the business of redeeming and remaking music, business, fashion, symbols, and more. He loves to take not just ugly, dead people that others despise and transform them, but He also loves to take ugly, dead things that others despise and transform them.
1 Corinthians 1:27-29 says that God loves to dumbfound people by choosing the weak, the humble, the low, the hated, even the non-existent in order to showcase His power and His message.
When I spent a summer in Mexico, I had the privilege of meeting many amazing, strong, and wonderfully transformed Christians. Because of their interest in me and their emotional openness to me, I was gifted with their stories, told by them in their own words. One amazing man possessed a story in some ways similar to mine – only he was bold enough to share it where I faltered in silence. He told me about his parent’s rough relationship and divorce, about the poverty his broken family faced, about his loneliness, about the time he spent in an orphanage.
“But, Anna,” he told me in Spanish as I barely managed a stumbling “lo siento mucho…que horrible” at the conclusion of his story, “if none of that had happened, I wouldn’t have met God at the orphanage, or learned to play guitar, or lived in this city, or met you.”
I couldn’t say anything – not in Spanish, not in English. I can still hardly say anything about the genuine glimmer in his eyes, like he honestly believed the “all things happen for good” verse in the Bible.
Up until that point (I’d only been a Christian for 2 years), I’d held to a futuristic view of Romans 8:28, a “well, in heaven when we’re with God in the very end of the world, of course all things will be good” idea.
But this man had a very present, intimate view of a God right now, right there in his life, working divorces and orphaned children and poverty out for good in his world. I feel immensely blessed to have learned a little of that present, intimate God view from him. The time he spent in my life, although brief, was ripe with spiritual growth. For that, I am forever grateful.
What he had, that I did not at the time, was a big picture view of the past. Not just the past of the world, but his own past.

Turquoise Wall Cross
My past and I have never been on good terms, partially because I remember things vividly and partially because the majority of my past was without God (yeah for the day that I’m old enough to reverse that statistic!). But I do love big pictures!
I’ve stood in the halls of museums, mesmerized by huge, intricate paintings, beckoning me to look at all the elements in all locations on the canvas. The lovely thing about those paintings is that each aspect is so detailed and planned, I hardly know where to look first. All the brush strokes and figures correspond aesthetically or uniquely within the setting, complementing the other elements. I’ve sat in gorgeous cathedrals giving myself whiplash from craning my neck to see how all the details of the painted, sculpted ceiling and walls fit together.
God loves big pictures. Since He isn’t limited by time and space, He creates some pretty long-term (to us), gorgeous, huge pictures.
Like the cross.
Many years after the crucifixion, the majority of the known world still despised the cross as ugly. In 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, Paul talks about how the cross was ridiculous and shameful to both the Jews and the Gentiles. Crucifixions were still taking place. One of Jesus’ disciples, Peter, was crucified upside down years after Jesus was, refusing to be crucified upright because he believed himself unworthy of suffering the same death Jesus had suffered. The cross remained ugly throughout the ancient world for hundreds of years.
But God is fine with waiting to develop long-term, lovely transformations. After all, He makes everything beautiful in His time, not in ours.
The cross was the ugliest, cruelest thing possible in the ancient world. Yet the cross happened to Jesus and God made it beautiful. He transformed a horrible death into a memorable, supernatural paradox that I get to see daily.
Picking up my own cross becomes something like that paradox; seeing the ugliest, cruelest thing possible that has happened to me to-date and beautifying it – yes, even publically displaying it – maybe when I have to stare at its hurtful effects daily, maybe when I have to shoulder its painful consequences daily, maybe when I still can’t even bring myself to look at it daily…
Daily.
Daily.
Daily.
And God gives more grace.
In helping us to transform our own cross experiences, God’s strength is perfected in the midst of my weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). I can’t look at my cross without God’s help, I can’t bear my cross without God’s help, and I definitely can’t beautify and display my cross for God’s glory without His help. My cross becomes simultaneously my lowest, ugliest, most painful moment, and a daily reminder of God’s transforming power and grace. Like looking at an orphanage and a divorce and seeing salvation, music, and precious new acquaintances. That’s beautiful. God is so beautiful.

Cross Necklace
I get to see His beauty on the golden chain around my neck, in the gruesome article about an ancient death, in a Spanish conversation with an amazing Christian, in the hall paintings in a museum, and in my sometimes ugly, painful memories – my personal cross that He promised I won’t have to bear alone.
I am with you always… Matthew 28:20

The Year I Didn’t Survive

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It’s been a while. A long while. A year.
I’d love to say that ceasing to blog was a positive, intentional choice that gave me some personal, no-pressure space, but the truth is, though I began blogging intentionally, I never intended to stop.
In 2014, I spent 6 amazing, fun months blogging for a bunch of other people, writing articles and posts for a spattering of small businesses with interests from organic food to political law. Constantly writing for other people pushed me to create more time to develop my own writing, but it also snatched the time I had to write for myself.
And part of writing is for myself. All writers will admit that, on some level, they write for themselves. They’re compelled and coerced to write – they can’t help it. It’s an identity thing.
To be honest, it’s a little annoying to be forever writing in your head, re-working what you’re going to say, editing discussions and circumstances, seeing personal situations like a comedy script or a human interest novel, thinking you’ll get things right the next scene around, rehearsing potential conversations in front of a mirror or on paper, believing that if you simply change a few elements, tweak a few characters, your story will fall into place.
But that’s the write-life.
At the end of 2014, much of the content from my 6 months of writing was left unpublished. A great portion of what was published was removed from websites post-publication. From the small portion remaining on websites, my name was removed.
Then, a financial crisis sent me packing back to where my story began in Detroit, MI to do what I’d sworn never to do post-graduation: move in with my parents for a month.
I’m not going to bore anyone with too many details, but the beginning of 2015 fell on an uprooted, unhinged, and discontent 22 year old, who did not believe that “everything’s gonna be alright.” Perhaps that shaky sentiment came across in my last blog post.
The new year always find me evaluating goals and priorities, assembling a reading list, pulling items off my bucket list that I want to do, setting new challenges for myself, seeing what I need to work on.
But at the beginning of 2015, I was watching pieces of myself shatter like champagne glasses on a collision course and fall to the ground like confetti to sad strains of “Au Laud Sang.” My past, present, and what I believed to be my future blended and broke in ways that made reading lists and bucket lists seem stupid. Forget about goal evaluation and areas of improvement; I needed a complete re-haul.
I came to hate my character, who I was as a person.
As a result, I came to God with my specialty: another list. Something like a “Honey-To-Do” list, fix-this-in-that-order.
Seeing my sin and ugly roots from God’s perspective was truly a gift. I had a lot of sin problems and ugly roots, many of which I’d planted myself – I still do. Pride had me thinking that I was put together and in control, something I’d asked God to remove from me.
A lot can happen in a year.
God is full of grace. He’s never showed me problems He doesn’t plan to carry me through; He’s never showed me something broken that He doesn’t plan to fix – on His time, His way, without my “To Do” list for spiritual character transformation.
He ripped my list up.
He ripped my heart open.
He ripped a lot of things out of my life.
Those sentences may sound rough to people who cling to the gentleness of God; I cling to God’s gentleness, too. The push that throws the child out of the way of the oncoming car, making her land in tears with scrapped elbows and knees is gentle compared to hospitalization, broken bones, death. A broken heart is better than a dead heart. God loves a broken heart.
Psalm 34:18 says that God is near to the broken-hearted and He rescues those with crushed spirits.
Psalm 51:17 says that God never hates nor refuses a broken heart.
But a broken heart still hurts. Pretending it doesn’t won’t make the pain go away. I can’t be macho with God.
God didn’t ask for my permission to break my heart – He doesn’t need to, but He did give me some time to adjust to the idea. He gave me some time to grow into the knowledge that His heart was broken and soft and tender, and He wants to give me another thing to have in common with Him.
What if you looked at your story and hated your favorite character? What if your favorite character was also your main character? What if that character was simultaneously your protagonist and antagonist? What if that character was you? That’s what it’s like to see pride and a hard heart.
But God offers a much better, humbling, real healing.
This healing is like looking at your story and realizing it’s not yours. It’s loving your favorite character, finding He’s your main character and the Author, and being saved by Him every day. It’s realizing you’re simultaneously an ant in the big picture story and the apple of the Author’s eye. It’s celebrating every new chapter – and all the previous chapters, no matter how ugly.
I’ve come to understand a little better how I’m new in God. Being new doesn’t mean burying and hiding the old; it means uncovering, uprooting, breaking, and burning the old; it means only building on the brand-new foundation, the Ancient Cornerstone.
A part of me didn’t survive 2015, but now I’m thrilled. In fact, I hope another part of me doesn’t survive 2016.
“He must increase; I must decrease.” John 3:30.