June 18, 2017

PRODIGAL DAUGHTER (MY TESTIMONY) || Sunday Dialogues

What I've been loving about writing Sunday Dialogues is that I get to share specific snapshots of how God has been working at different points in my life. Today's the day to give you a bird's-eye view of my walk with Him, including the defining, pivotal turn He helped me take a few years ago.

Before I was born, the three names that my parents considered naming me were: Hannah, Sarah, and Claudia - all Christian names. I mention this fun fact to say that I was fortunate enough to be born into a Christian home; through the teachings of my parents and Sunday School teachers, I began my walk with God at a young age.

As a Sunday School teacher now, I sometimes doubt the impact I have on shaping my little students' understanding of God and Jesus, but I always come back to the realization that kids are surprisingly perceptive. Prior to the past two years, my trust in God was last strongest when I was five years old.



I know...five? But think of the innocent trust a little kid has in her dad. She relies on him for everything because she knows she's not capable...I think that best depicts our relationship at the time. Everyone's favorite, Psalm 23, makes me equate my five year old self to a little sheep, instinctively trusting that her shepherd will provide, no questions or doubts in mind.

I remember when a friend began to get too rough with me. Not wanting to look weak and tell my friend off, I turned to God for help. For several weeks, I'd sit in the corner of our living room and quietly pray, asking God to make my friend "be nicer". Can you imagine that?! My grandpa, who wasn't a Christian at the time, must have thought I was so weird as he'd look over from the kitchen.

But slowly, I began to drift away, growing independent and, in my mind, self-sufficient. We left a church I learned to grow comfortable with when my parents helped set up another church. Throughout the struggles and growing pains of a young church, I lost a lot of interest in my Sunday School classes, becoming more interested in passing notes to my friends and playing games. On top of that, sass, rebellion, and stubbornness kicked in like they do for most kids. I don't know if that's natural to most kids or to the broken worldview I was learning more about, but needless to say, I was beginning to spiral away from God.

During those elementary and middle school years, my love for helping with the children's ministry (aka playing with kids younger than me) grew, but my spiritual maturity remained stagnant; my faith regressed. I was becoming less godly and more judgmental, just like a Pharisee. I didn't have a spiritual role model to learn from; worst of all, I couldn't shake off my expectation that church leaders should be perfect. How that ever crept into my mind, I don't know. What I am sure of, is that I didn't see God as someone I could have a relationship with. God became a distant figure; the church was a place for hypocrisy; life was a pursuit for perfection.

Self-righteousness and self-sufficiency gradually defined me. The pressures of my high school led me to find even more idols, namely ambition, success, academics, busy-ness. Looking back, it's ironic how I began to co-teach and teach Sunday School around this time, despite not being in a relationship with God. I taught about His goodness, His love, His sacrifice, and His redeeming grace, but I couldn't recognize Him as a Father. At the same time, I found true joy during a rocky period through teaching. Preparing for lessons taught me to go into the Word, something I rarely did. Pouring myself into the little kids was what brought me to church - partly because I was scheduled to, but mostly because I found so much meaning in what I was doing. On the other Sundays, I'd struggle through repeated excuses, failing to convince my parents to let me stay at home. Friendships with childhood Christian friends became more strained; even they couldn't bring me to church. Church-going was an obligatory, boring ritual that I didn't have time nor desire for.

Outside of church and academics, I struggled with my share of family issues, personal insecurities, and disloyal friends. God allowed me to find escapes through working with horses, cooking, and discovering the world of nutrition. Nutrition, however, was a novelty that grew into an obsessive matter of control.

Doctors couldn't help me with my insomnia and stress...
Cornell kept pushing me away, so my academics failed to prove my worth to my peers...
challenges brought out the worst in family members...
friends took senior year to reveal their true colors...
but nutrition --- that was something I could control myself.

Yet soon enough, the control went to my head. I couldn't stop eliminating foods from my diet.
I had taken so much control that I lost control over myself.


I remember the day I hit my lowest point like it was yesterday: I broke down crying in my room, somehow resorting to Hillsong's "Second Chance" for comfort.

It was around December of my senior year, and I hadn't gone to church for months. I was physically worn, mentally broken, emotionally wrecked, and spiritually lost. That was the first time I begged God to reel me back in, realizing I couldn't control my life anymore. I couldn't come up with a resurrection plan for myself. Only God could fix my problems and dig me out of the hole that I couldn't stop digging.

A few nights ago, the young adult pastor at my church said,

"True faith kicks in when you realize that Jesus is all you have."

God had to bring me all the way down to make me realize that I needed Him. God had to shake me from my complacency, habitual self-righteousness, and idolatry of workaholism. God had to bring in suffering and pain to set the stage for the greatness of His healing to come.

That prayer, for God to reel me back in and restore our relationship, was only the first step. My problems weren't immediately, magically fixed...I wish!

When you're in the moment, you feel like you're stuck forever, but hindsight provides an incredible understanding of God's timing. That January, my mom convinced me to go back to a local church we had gone to when I was five, and my heart began to soften after the first message. I felt more comfortable in a large environment, where I could slip in and out as I pleased, without anyone really knowing me, reaching for God at my own comfortable pace. I began to open my heart to God more and slowly gained the desire to know Him more. My Spanish literature teacher unknowingly became my spiritual role model; her words and actions modeled the godliness I couldn't figure out how to live out from only listening to sermons.

In April, when I couldn't get into Cornell for my first year, I visited Emory instead. Emory was the school I wanted my brother to go to; it offered so many opportunities, but it wasn't "right for a pre-vet". Now, it was actually a consideration, and I somehow felt "at home" on Admitted Students' Day. I couldn't put my finger on what it was, but this gut feeling was telling me to go there despite the distance and expenses that traveling for school would be. God involved my parents in His plan. They encouraged me to go there, and I was on my way to the path of spiritual change.

The months before leaving for college, which involved more loss and pain, gave me opportunities to practice asking God for strength and guidance. These challenges prefaced the faith and obedience that I'd need the coming year.

With some relearned trust, I entered Emory and met so many new people and friends. It took me twelve years to identify my true friends at home, but God instantly provided me an entire family at my campus ministry. So many people inspired and poured into me, and for the first time, I found myself being more honest and vulnerable with people whom I barely knew. I became exponentially more intentional about pursuing a relationship with God, and the Religion 101 class I took - on a whim to fulfill a requirement, might I add - matured my views of Christianity as a whole.

So when it was time for me to leave Emory, leave my family at my campus ministry, I was reluctant and frustrated. God challenged me to listen to His still, small voice as my questions, "Am I really transferring?", "Where am I going to go?", "Is this actually happening?", "Do I really have to?", hammered through my mind. Though God had planted the seed earlier, the idea of transferring was the most spontaneous, unplanned decision I've made, and I now recognize it as a leap of faith.

The confusion, heartache, and stress of transferring demanded almost a blind obedience and trust that He would work it all out...four very long months later, the day before I took my last final, I received my third admission letter from Cornell. I had finally gotten in. I wasn't convinced I'd be going there at the time, but I was able to access permutations of God's future for me. Having a vague sense of direction provided immense relief.

As it turns out, Cornell was in His plan for me, but I'm not there for what I had originally planned to study. As a good friend of mine told me,

"God's detour and timing allowed me to humble myself and follow His plan for me, not my own."


That "gut feeling" I had on Admitted Students' Day, calling me to Emory? Just before leaving, I realized it was God's way of "reeling" me, the prodigal daughter who had ran away, back in. I wouldn't have matured in my faith the way I did without the people, campus ministry, and churches pouring into me that year. He answered those infrequent, desperate prayers I had senior year for a renewed relationship with Him. I had wanted a straight path to Cornell, but God's detour was intentional and worthwhile.


Like I said, with hindsight, it's cool to see how things can come full circle. Every story with God really does have more on the backside than the frontside. But the process of walking with God isn't easy. That walk is full of branches waiting to trip you, detours that test your trust and patience, hills to climb, even boring views at times. When you overcome one challenge, ten more will present themselves down the line, and we just have to accept that.

But remember - He's walking with you! No matter what you're going through, He's right there, ready to catch you and pull you back up. It doesn't matter how many times you fall, how many times you let go of His hand to wander down another path.

He's like those parents who have strapped a leash/harness on their kid as they go skiing down a mountain - He'll let you veer off a bit, but He's going to steer you back onto the right path, never losing his hold. You can trust His guidance, too, because He's got a view of the entire mountain. He knows what moguls and icy patches are coming.

How great is it, that we have a God - who's so good, so forgiving, and so gracious - who gives us not one, but a lifetime's worth of second chances, even though we didn't deserve the first one?

Song recommendation: Second Chance, by Hillsong

If you like my Sunday Dialogues series, you can find more here (or click "Faith" on the navigation bar).

1 comment:

  1. Touched by your testimony, I can relate. At the end of the day, it all boils down to trusting in Him.

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