BY HANNAH KILPATRICK, LUCERNA
(First, I thank everyone for their patience during the website renovation and subsequent post removal. Hopefully my new profile is not quite so mysterious and intimidating. Especially since I remembered to smile for the camera this time. 🙂 )
Have you ever been on fire for God?
I hadn’t, not until recently. In theory He was the Savior, Healer, Shepherd, King – I knew a myriad of names and meanings and testimonies. And of course I wanted to follow him. You want to be on good standing with the One who holds all eternity, after all.
But did you catch the problem in the phrase above? The. To me, God was the Healer, the Shepherd, and the King. Yes, I believed on him, and I was saved. I wanted everyone to see my good works and say, “Now that’s what a Christian looks like.” Christians usually get a pretty bad rap from the media and world at large, and I wanted to change that conception. However, there was really no desire in me to search God out and know him well, any more than I want to find some random politician and ask the hows and whys of their job. We had a deal, God and I, and I wanted to fill my part of the bargain.
Nothing more, nothing less.
Years went by. My family moved into a large house in the middle of the woods, a quarter hour from a two-street town. I guess we wanted to be well cushioned from the big bad world.
But God is not limited by the land or people He created; He finds ways to shake us up, to make us look him in the eye, like my parents always did when they said something serious. And my Father had some serious truths to teach me, because the year I turned eighteen, my life was knocked around like a volleyball. With typical teenage energy, I ached to get out and make my own mark on the world, do something grand that would reinforce my badge as a Christian. I felt my great potential was buried deep in that backwoods house and our miniature church.
Here our troubles began. First, we lost the church. Granted, the building was still there, but the spirit had changed. Instead of a basis for fellowship and honoring Christ, it felt more like a yardstick to measure all the “things” in our life – were our dresses long enough? Our hair? Did we eat the right foods? Did we use the right school curriculum? Tithe the right causes? The list of unspoken rules and regulations was longer than the Bible itself. We left, and gained a cold shoulder from just about everyone we knew. I found that the woods are a lonely place when you’re going through them alone.
Next came November and the tumultuous election season, fodder for word-wars and gossip.
Then came December, Christmas, and the burial of our long-awaited, unborn baby brother. A few months, another death. And another. Four souls were born in heaven before the year was half over. I sometimes wonder just how hard my heart had been, to take so much to break me down.
The last death occurred in May, a few weeks before I left home for STEP. By now I’d developed a pretty thick skin, chocking back my tears and trying to be positive instead. It’ll be okay – God knows what He’s doing – He has better things in store for us – we still have purpose in this life.
I smiled perfectly, placidly, then rushed to the bathroom and slammed the door. I fell to the floor, the cool tile stinging my hot face.
I hated God just then, though I was too good a Christian to say or even think it. But I’d begged him to spare my siblings four times. I’d begged him to restore my lost friendships and provide a church. I’d begged him to get us out of this small town and give us a purpose, a mission, something bigger than babysitting and homeschooling.
What kind of Father would say no so many times?
The last weeks passed slowly as I prepared for STEP. I wanted so badly to get away from Virginia, from everyday life, from the white headstone in our backyard. I’d been waiting most of my teenage years for this opportunity, and was expecting yet another delay every second until we arrived in Big Sandy.
But before the day was over, I found myself in a very pink dormitory containing forty plus ladies I’d never met in my life. Suddenly, I was expected to take hugs and “love you’s” with strangers and share my testimony of how great a person I was. Me, the quiet backwoods girl who was just “one of the kids”, who’d just been rejected by most of the girls I knew, who’d never had to step forward and speak up.
God has an almost comical sense of irony.
I spent four weeks at STEP, and the process of breaking the shell around my stubborn heart began on day one. Day to day life was a frightening challenge, as I had to face every fear I ever had: heights, water, people, failure. I hated myself for slowing my team down, and all but hyperventilating at every obstacle.
“God, when will you start being there when I need you?”
For the first few weeks, God was silent. I always thought I could do things myself, be the strong person with the shining Christian badge, so He let me try.
Then came the test. It was a normal weekday, so we gathered in the gym and were given our instructions: today’s PT would be running. We could choose either the slow group or the fast group.
I strode outside, fully intending to join the slow group as usual. I wasn’t a good runner at any time of life, but I’d also been sick, and didn’t feel like breathing the muggy summer air – much less working out in it.
I heard a whisper somewhere inside me, “Change groups.”
I stopped, confidence shattered. What in the world? I didn’t know if I’d make it around the block, much less the two or more miles that the fast group ran. Also, I had quite a bit of admiration for their leader, and didn’t want to look foolish in front of her if I couldn’t finish.
But the whisper in my heart was insistent. “Change groups.”
Does God ever give us dares? Because that moment I felt He was daring me to challenge myself, to make it on my own strength. I put my chin up and accepted the dare.
“Okay, Lord. If you say so.”
I did make the first section, probably close to a mile. But I was already spent, I have no idea how or why I was still moving forward. I gave up the dare.
“Help me, Lord. I have to make it to the end.”
Our group ran down several sidewalks, roads, and a dirt path through a wooded area. I never knew two miles could cover so much territory.
By now, every step was a prayer of pain, and I tried to remember everything the Bible promised about providing help when we needed it.
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand…”
My memory snatched a handful of verses that I chanted it over and over, like rubbing a magic lantern for a genie. But I didn’t feel any stronger.
“God, help me! You promised you would!”
Tears began to cloud my eyes and clog my throat. God never answered my prayers. I’d go back home in a few weeks to an unsellable house, a silent grave, and the usual monotony of everyday uselessness. It didn’t even matter if I gave up anymore. Nobody cared.
Somehow, I kept running, and I was talking to God aloud now. A new verse came to mind:
“Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I said the words without any feeling. Then I repeated some of them:
“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
I felt like a tidal wave crashed over my heart, carrying away the cracked pieces God had been chiseling at for weeks, leaving something soft and workable. Instead of seeing everything that had gone wrong for the past year, I could see the one event that made everything right: Jesus had loved me enough to die for me. He was with me now, longing to pick me up as much as I was longing to be carried. Again I felt like the little girl who gave her heart to Jesus, not the cynical teen who questioned everything.
I couldn’t run another step. I stumbled, and someone caught me. I didn’t even notice who, I was staring at the end of the road and muttering half-aloud.
“God, let me reach the end. I’ve wanted to do this for myself, now let me do it for you.”
I stumbled down the road, leaning on the kind folks who were holding me up and stroking my hands, trying to encourage me. I all but pushed them away, staring at the group that had gone far ahead, feeling more weak and useless than ever before.
By now, the leader had turned back and was waiting for me. I was madly wiping tears, and I could see her standing some distance away in a red shirt, hands on her hips.
So much for making a good impression, I thought. But it didn’t matter anymore, I was going to finish running. If I’d been willing to go this far for myself, I should be willing to go twice as far for God.
I muttered the verse again as I started running. “Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus…”
I’d been staring at the bright red shirt. Surely I could make it to that point. And the end wasn’t much farther past there.
“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith…”
The next part of the verse disappeared from my mind. I began seeing, and hearing, through a dark tunnel, then nothing. I fell, almost at the leader’s feet. I gasped, I could see again, and once more people were helping me to my feet.
“Come on, you can’t stop now!” Folks were yelling, cheering. “Come on!”
Thinking back, I must’ve looked pathetic. I was sobbing uncontrollably, biting my finger in frustration, stumbling like a drunk.
“I didn’t make it!” Was all I could think, and my stupid tongue stuttered. “Only two miles. And I didn’t make it. I didn’t make it.”
Everyone was moving the last few blocks towards the gym now, and again I had a person on each side to hold me up. They were still encouraging, despite myself.
“Girl, you did finish! You pushed so hard, you did well!”
It didn’t sink in at first, I was rambling uncontrollably about not finishing, slowing everyone down. Eventually I was quiet, and God slipped in a word edgewise:
I burst into tears again. “God, I failed! I didn’t make it!”
Why do I even bother correcting God?
“Hannah,” He said, and when He uses my name, I know to shut up and listen. “Do you think I care how well you run?”
I had no idea. The God I’d been trying to represent by perfect Christianity, and the God of the yardstick church, would have cared a great deal. But this one, the true God, was different than I’d ever imagined. He was fatherly, proud of me for what I’d done, not judging me for what I couldn’t do. My best wasn’t much, but it was all He wanted.
For the first time in forever, I could sense his presence. It was almost as if He’d been standing at the door of my heart, waiting for me to answer, aching to surround me with his love. A cool wind was blowing, I (finally) noticed the ladies walking with me, providing the sweet fellowship I’d wanted all my life. It wasn’t that these things hadn’t existed before, I’d just been too blind to see them. Now they were precious, like gifts chosen specially for me.
I struggled many more times during the remaining weeks; very often I came to the end of myself physically and emotionally. But I knew something had changed inwardly, even my parents could tell from our brief phone conversations. I became excited for each day rather than dreading it. Every challenge was a new opportunity for God to show himself strong, and open my eyes to yet another gift. I slowly began to release of the fear of losing yet another friendship and allowed myself to love and be loved.
I’ve been home for exactly two weeks now. Learning to again accept the daily grind, the longing for adventure, and the loneliness, has been a whole new struggle, but not like before. It’s no longer me against the evil world. It’s God, the entire Body of Christ, conquering through love.
And I much prefer those odds.