(This is the second in what will probably be a long list of articles about my experiences before and after STEP.)
The dining hall was dressed up pretty for graduation night, with lights set on dim, and semi-formal dishes laid out perfectly on long tables.
I stood in the back of the room, trying to blend in with a safe-looking grand piano and shredding a pile of dog-eared notes in my fist. My Dad was here, my friend’s families, all of our leaders, and a good many of the ministry’s big shots. Worst of all, I had volunteered to speak in front of them.
All of them.
A kind-hearted person had put me near the bottom of the list, so I listened to several other students speak before me. They were brave, they had wisdom, and all I could think of was the knot in my stomach growing tighter. I looked around the room for emergency exits, just in case.
“Dear Lord,” I prayed, outwardly silent, inwardly screaming, “What am I doing here? The only thing that scares me more than heights is people. And there’s a lot of respectable people here. If you don’t mind, I’d rather not make a fool of myself in front of them…”
God always waits until I’m done thinking, a very admirable trait. He replied, “You didn’t come here. I brought you here.”
Well, that was true enough. I remembered earlier that day in the auditorium, when the sign-ups were being held. It was completely optional, no pressure, so I decided to slip out the door and join the rest of the team outside.
“Next year, Lord, next year…”
Half-way there I came to a dead halt, almost tripping the line of girls behind me. There was a cold, disapproving silence in my heart, and I couldn’t move another step. I dropped my shoulders.
“Okay, Lord, I’ll sign up.”
Thus, I found myself hugging the piano beside the stage in the dining hall. The room was filled with soft candle-type light, except for the blinding spotlights pointed our direction.
Like a prison break, I thought stupidly.
The person in front of me stepped down, and I was ushered onto the blue regal-looking platform. I blinked in the light, and saw a hundred faces – if not more – watching.
I tried to look very professional, tilted the microphone slightly, and leaned forward to speak.
I jumped at the sound of my own voice reverberating through the room. I adjusted the mic again, wondering how close my mouth was supposed to be the mysterious mesh surface.
And I spoke. Several minutes of jumbled thoughts and straight reading from my notes, with the general theme of keeping the faith once we get home, and not forgetting what we’d learned. Somehow I summed the piece up, and disappeared into the safety of the darkened room again.
It felt good to do the hard things for God, challenging my deepest fears. And I’d tested just about every deep fear I had that month, except one:
Fast forward almost two weeks and a thousand miles eastward. No dining hall, no blinding lights, no piano-hugging. I’m comfy in my own bunk at home, nestled under the blankets, the room pitch black, just the way I like it.
But I’m not sleeping like a normal person, I’m tossing and turning the hours away. Midnight. One am. Two. Adjusting back to home life was harder than I was prepared for, forget what I’d just tried to teach. My mind bounced from subject to subject like an awful game of Pong, covering everything from CPR to the confidence course, everything STEP. I ached for the friends I’d left behind, for the thrill of doing hard things for God. Home life was so … easy. And somehow, that made it hard. I wondered how in the world I was going to pass the remaining year until STEP Advanced, when I could feel accomplished and busy again.
I glanced over the wooden bed railing at the alarm clock, and 2:30 stared back in steady green digits. I dropped my face into the feather pillow.
How was I ever supposed to do great and adventurous things? One month away from home in a safe, fun environment, and every aspect of my life was shattered. And, being the clever person that I am, it made only sense to do it again next year.
My mind drifted back to the banquet, and the speech. I honestly couldn’t remember a word of it, only the pauses in-between. I sighed. At least I was done with that.
“No, you’re not,” God said, “There’s next year.”
I moaned. “But…”
“You said next year.”
Again, clever me. I’d promised to speak next year before I’d even finished the current year.
“Okay, Lord, I’ll speak. But will You give me the words beforehand this time, please? I’m a terrible ad-libber.”
No response one way or the other, so I undertook the job. Surely I could expand what I’d learned these weeks at home into a three minute “speech”, just for practice. I skimmed through my memories of personal devotions, which mostly involved me admitting to God that I felt like a misfit among believers, a useless weight, and a broken vase, begging for help.
I can be quite poetic when in emotional pain, it seems.
Well, so far so good. I imagined a slightly older and much braver me, standing confidently on the stage and giving a convincing testimony. How STEP challenged me and gave me focus. How what we learned that particular month was not nearly as valuable as what it prepared us to learn when we got home. I’d tell the dime-story version of rededicating myself to God, and feeling humble and broken like shattered pottery, but…
Here I was stuck. Now what? Everything was true so far. I’d been challenged and changed, and God had indeed shattered my hard heart. But that was the end of the story, no amazing twists or pretty wrap-up. Just raw openness and pain.
I bit my lip. What kind of speech was that? “I came to STEP, was completely broken, and sent home in shatters.”
“Dear Lord, I can’t speak. I just can’t. I’ve been broken, but not repaired. I still feel like a useless heap in the middle of nowhere.”
I rolled onto my back and stared at the ceiling, definitely not drifting off anytime soon. The speech from this year, or coming next year, no longer mattered. I had to settle this for myself and know God was still working, somehow, somewhere, and that I was staying in the midst of His will. Because when you play the part of a broken vase, it’s easy to feel useless and forgotten. The past month I had seen more dimensions to God’s character than I ever knew existed, and in comparison, more disgusting flaws in my own humanity. In short, being shown the difference between yourself, and a fraction of the Almighty Being, is enough to smash any created form. Including me.
But humility and brokenness, while helpful in putting things back into perspective, can also make a person vulnerable to Satan’s lies. In fact, the broken pieces around me were the very lies I’d believed for so long, chipped away one by one. And already they were trying to over the open wound before God could bandage it. Like gnats buzzing in my ear, I could hear the chanting lies: that I wasn’t worthy to be used, I had no talents to offer, I’d only be a burden to ministry.
And I agreed with every word. “Lord, I can’t be used. I’m too full of sin, of lies, and am just generally unlikable. You’ll have to find someone else to build houses for the homeless and distribute tracts and comfort hurting people. All I’m good for is sitting in our lonesome house in the middle of nowhere, making useless plans and having grandiose dreams of adventure. Find someone else, Lord, because I’m nothing more than a broken vase.”
I finally shut my mouth and rolled over, determined to forget my troubles and get some sleep. Today was going to be the same as tomorrow, and the next day, and the next year; STEP was the only distant training or service I was allowed, and since I was no good anyway, there was no use bothering them with my presence.
I imagine God was sitting beside me, shaking his head, like a parent dealing with the same problem for the hundredth time. Finally, He spoke to me. “Girl, the self-righteous, put-together pots in the shelf, the ones you’re envying, are no good to me.”
I almost bolted upright in bed.
He continued, “Look at Abraham. Look at Israel. At Joseph, Ruth, Daniel, Saul. Or David Livingstone, George Muller, Dwight Moody, Fanny Crosby. I am the potter, I have no use for hardened vessels. But the ones that are broken, soft, and willing, I can shape into the items I truly need. And every shattered vase put under my hand becomes a vessel of honor.”
I gulped. “God, honor?”
Of course, honor. God doesn’t waste His time on worthless dollar trinkets; when He touches a heart, He doesn’t let it go until there is something priceless and valuable for His service.
As the clay, we only have to be soft and broken.
“Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ … Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ, unto the glory and praise of God.”
Philippians 1:6 and 11
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.