Smoothing her skirt for the hundredth time, the little girl with straight black hair and big brown eyes sat primly on the front porch, dangling her feet over the edge. Her hair was neatly combed and held in place with a bow that matched her new ruffled party dress. It was her tenth birthday, and everything had to be perfect.

“This is the day my daddy’s gonna call,” Bianca thought to herself. “I know it. He’s going to call me and he’s going to wish me happy birthday and tell me that he loves me.”

Since the day her father had walked out of her life, Bianca had struggled with feelings of abandonment and being unwanted. For years she kept hoping and praying he would come back.

“This is the year,” she had decided on the day of her tenth birthday. “This is his last chance. If he doesn’t call me today, I’ll never expect him to call again.”

So she sat on the porch and waited. And waited. And waited.

He never called.

A Fresh Start

More than twenty years later, as Bianca was recounting the story to our Fresh Start team, her emotions were still raw.

“I decided then that my father didn’t love me,” she told us. “And I felt that maybe even God didn’t love me.”

But over the course of the week-long Fresh Start seminar, Bianca’s heart was touched by the message of forgiveness, and though it was difficult, she decided to fully forgive her father for the pain of rejection and abandonment. The burden of all that hurt and pain was lifted off her shoulders, and she actually felt love towards her father, even though he had never apologized or changed.

“It’s amazing!” She beamed through tears. “I feel such peace now. And God has shown me that HE was there all those years that my father wasn’t there! God was the Father that I needed as a little girl. He never left me. He fills that hole in my heart.”

Have you ever felt rejected or abandoned? Have people in your life let you down? Our Heavenly Father wants to fill those empty places in your heart. Take your pain to Him. Forgive those who have hurt or disappointed you. And let God reveal to you how He’s always been there, even in those lonely and painful times. He will never disappoint you. He is a father to the fatherless.

Going Vertical!
MJ

“A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.”
Psalm 68:5 (NIV)

Balancing a stack of dirty dishes and silverware, I was on my way to the kitchen when Diego and Giovanni intercepted me.

“Let us carry those for you, Michelle,” Giovanni smiled, taking the plates from me.

“But it’s my turn to do dishes today,” I protested.

“Yeah, but we want the dishes to make it to the kitchen in one piece,” laughed Diego.

“I can always tell when Michelle is on dish duty,” jumped in Daniel, “by the sounds of plates breaking and glasses shattering!” The others in the dining hall of the Central American Bible school chuckled as my face turned red. Smiling weakly, I slunk into the kitchen, humiliated.

False Labels

My clumsiness was a running joke among the students and staff. All eyes seemed to be on me when I was carrying something precarious, waiting for the inevitable catastrophe. “Don’t fall, Michelle! Don’t trip! Don’t break that!” my fellow students would call out. That only made me more nervous and self-conscious, and then I was more likely to fulfill their expectations!

Though I would laugh along when others made jokes about me being “accident-prone” or a “klutz,” I started to identify with those labels, accepting the fact that everyone expected me to fail.

But I’m not defined by others’ opinions. God has redeemed me out of that place of shame and given me a new name. I don’t have to identify with the labels of “clumsy” and “a klutz” anymore. He says I’m a beloved daughter, adopted into His royal family, given honor and treated with grace. Isaiah 6:2 says, “The nations will see your righteousness, And all kings your glory; And you will be called by a new name, Which the mouth of the Lord will designate” (NASB).

I still sometimes drop things, break things, spill things, or trip over my own feet. But now when friends laugh and make comments about it, I just smile and say I’m trying to slow down and be more careful. I’ve forgiven those in the Central American Bible school who labelled me a klutz, and I’ve rejected those false labels of shame and being untrustworthy. I’m learning to embrace my “new name” that the Lord has given me – “full of grace.”

Going Vertical!
MJ

“Go home, Michelle. We don’t need you here.”

My brother’s words stung. What do you mean, you don’t need me? I thought, immediately defensive. Of COURSE you need me! This school would fall apart without me! I had helped start this little English school in northeast Asia three years earlier, and was responsible for finding textbooks, designing the curriculum, assessing student ability, training new teachers, hosting visiting teams, and keeping things running smoothly, as well as teaching a very full load of classes.

“You’re no good to anyone here when you’re miserable yourself,” my brother Michael continued, quietly and firmly. He had been teaching at the school with me for the past year, and had seen the strain I’d been under. And he wasn’t one to mince words when the truth needed to be told. “You’re a mess. We’ll be fine without you. You need to go home.”

Though it was painful to hear, I knew Michael was right. For months, I’d felt like I was at the breaking point almost every day. The compounded stress and pressure of an extremely demanding job, very little rest, conflicts with roommates and co-workers, and not feeling understood or appreciated by my leaders was getting to be more than I could bear. Ignoring the warning signs of burnout and depression, I’d stubbornly pushed on, insisting that I was fine. But my “stuff it and forget it” method of dealing with stress was not working anymore. And though I tried to mask my emotions with a pasted-on smile, apparently the only one I’d been fooling was myself.

But the part that was hardest for me to accept was that the school didn’t NEED me. I needed to be needed. My identity was wrapped up in this superhero image of the girl who could do it all, the amazing cross-cultural English teacher who overcame every obstacle and sacrificed her own comforts for the greater good of her students and team. And now here was my brother saying that they would survive without me! How could they?

Need to be Needed

“You can’t be the savior of the world, Michelle,” a friend had gently rebuked me years ago. “The job’s already taken.” Now her words came back to confront my prideful self-importance and inflated image of my own ability. Who did I think I was? I had been relying on my own strength for far too long. And now I was paying the price for it.

Apparently the apostle Paul struggled with similar issues. He also had to be reminded where his strength came from. The Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (II Corinthians 12:9a, NIV).

My brother’s confrontation that day in our little English school in northeast Asia forced me to face the reality that I can’t be the savior of the world. If I need to be needed, I will never recognize my need for Christ.

Instead, I can now say with the apostle Paul, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. …For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9b,10b, NIV). HE is my source of strength. HE is all I need!

Going Vertical!
MJ

My toes tapped anxiously on the floor of the long hallway. Shifting in my folding chair, I craned my neck to look at the clock for the hundredth time. How much longer? There was nothing to do but wait and wonder.

Finally a thin woman stepped out into the hallway. “Michelle?” I jumped up anxiously. “You can come in,” she said, turning back to the large room. I followed her silently. “We’d like you to read the part of the princess again,” the woman said, thrusting a script in my hand. “Charles will be reading for the prince.” She nodded at a boy of about twelve.

At eleven years old, it was my dream to be an actress. I’d always been in school plays and church musicals, but this was the first time I’d had a real audition – for a local theater production of”Sleeping Beauty.” The directors had already called me back several times to read different scenes with various prince hopefuls. Now they seemed to have selected the prince, and it was down to me and one other girl for the part of Sleeping Beauty.

Wiping my sweaty palms on my jeans, I clutched the paper and swallowed hard before plunging into the scene with everything I had. When I finished, the adults behind the table had a hushed conversation for a few minutes. I hardly dared to breathe.

“Michelle, we think you read the part wonderfully,” the thin woman began. “But we are looking for someone a bit taller, and with blonde hair.” She looked at a young blonde girl standing to the side. “Anna is a better fit for the part. I’m sorry.”

Crushed, I tried to answer politely before stumbling back to the hallway where my mom was waiting. “I’m not tall enough. And I’m not blonde.” There was nothing more to say.

It’s not fair! I thought as we drove home – I have no control over my height or my hair color. I KNOW I’m a better actress than that other girl. But I’m not pretty enough. If only I were taller. If only I were blonde…

A lie started to take root in my heart at that moment: I’ll never be good enough – there will always be someone prettier, more talented, or more popular than me. As I got into my teens, I started comparing myself more with others, finding reasons to be dissatisfied with my own physical appearance. She’s thinner than me. She has better hair than me. Her clothes are cuter than mine. I was falling victim to a mis-placed identity.

The very first woman on earth wasn’t satisfied with the way she was and wanted to be like someone else. She believed the lie of the serpent that she could be “like God” if she ate the fruit God had said not to eat. “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4-5, NIV).

Eve didn’t realize that she already was perfect in the eyes of her Creator. By trying to attain something that wasn’t intended for her, Eve was plunged into a cycle of guilt, shame, rejection, and separation from God.

We often make the same mistake as Eve did. Desiring to be like someone else, comparing ourselves with others, not satisfied with our bodies or abilities or circumstances, we forget that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14, NIV).

But I don’t want to be caught in the comparison trap any longer. So today I choose to forgive that blonde girl who took the role of Sleeping Beauty. I forgive the directors of the play who gave her the part instead of me. Their opinion of me doesn’t define me. And I break the lie that said I’m not good enough or pretty enough and I don’t measure up to others. My identity is rooted in the fact that I’m a beloved daughter of my Heavenly Father. And I know He made me just the way He wants me to be – brown hair, freckles, and all!

Going Vertical!

MJ

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
Psalm 139:14, NIV

“We brought you something,” my American friend Lisa grinned as she came in the door. Her husband Robert thrust a long thin box into my hands, beaming at me like a school kid.

“We discovered it yesterday!” Lisa said. “We knew you would want some.”
I stared at the box in my hands, not knowing what to say. It was spaghetti. Real, imported Italian spaghetti noodles. These were a real treasure in our small east Asian town.
The handful of foreigners living here had scouted out all the supermarkets in our city, and found only one store that carried them in a tiny imported foods section. Then one day, for no apparent reason, the shop had stopped carrying spaghetti. I looked for it week after week, month after month, but there was none to be found. I asked my other foreign friends, and they all said the same thing – our pasta supply had inexplicably dried up.
So when I discovered this week that the supermarket had spaghetti again, I was ecstatic. I cleared the shelf and bought every single box in stock – about 16 boxes of noodles. And now here my American friends were generously offering me one of their valuable boxes of spaghetti, unaware that my cabinet was stuffed with pasta.
I felt sick. How greedy and selfish could I be? It had never occurred to me to share my precious purchase with my other foreign friends in town. All I’d thought about was myself.

Not an Orphan

I was reminded of some friends who had adopted a little boy from Russia. Every night at supper he would stuff his pockets with rolls from the table, then hide them under his pillow for later. His years in the Russian orphanage had taught him that he had to fight for his food if he wanted to have enough to eat. But slowly he began to learn that his new parents would feed him again the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. And he stopped hiding bread in his room. He started to see himself as a son.
Now here I was, acting exactly like an orphan. Orphans fight for what they want, because no one else will fight for them. They hoard what they have, because they don’t know what they’ll get tomorrow. Orphans only look out for themselves, because there’s no one else to care for them.
But I’m not an orphan! I’ve been adopted into God’s family. Why didn’t I trust Him to give me what I need? Matthew 7:9-11 says, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (NIV) I have a good Father, and I know He will provide for me.

A Beloved Daughter

Ashamed and embarrassed, I confessed to my friends Lisa and Robert the whole story of the spaghetti noodles, showing them my overflowing cupboard. They laughed and accepted my peace offering of several boxes of pasta, and all was well.
But that day reminded me to be careful not to slip into an “orphan mentality.” If I find myself feeling like I need to hoard something special and not share with others, or start to worry that I won’t have what I need in the future, I remember that I’m no longer an orphan. I’m a beloved daughter, and I have a good Father who takes good care of me!
Going Vertical!
MJ

Sitting on my towel on the sand, watching the waves come in and recede, I feel strangely restless and uncomfortable. My cousin Nathalie and I had planned an afternoon getaway to the beach, but we apparently had come with different visions of what that would look like. I’ve lived no more than thirty minutes from the ocean most of my life, and I love any excuse to go to the beach. But growing up in a family with three brothers, my experience of beach trips has always been full of physical activity – swimming, boogey-boarding, frisbee, volleyball, building sand-sculptures, etc.

So when Nathalie stretches out on her towel with a magazine she’s brought, I’m at a loss for what to do. It never occurred to me to bring reading material to the beach. I shift on my towel and scan the shoreline. Aren’t we going to DO something? Sensing my discomfort, my cousin turns to look at me, shaking her head.

“You need to learn to relax,” she chides gently.

“I AM relaxing!” I protest.

“No, you’re not,” she says. “You’re all tense, ready to jump up at any minute. We came to the beach to relax!”

She’s right. I am tense. It’s hard for me to completely relax. Even when I’m at the beach, I’m always busy. I guess if I’m active, even if it’s swimming or boogie-boarding, I feel like I’m being productive, like I’m accomplishing something. But when I sit still for just a few minutes, I start to feel guilty. There’s so much to do – emails to respond to, projects to work on, errands to run, phone calls to make… How can I just sit here and do NOTHING?

But why do I feel guilty if I slow down and take time to rest? Am I placing my value in what I accomplish? Is my worth determined by what I produce? My security doesn’t lie in what I do, but in Who I belong to. I’m an adopted daughter of the Heavenly Father, and He accepts me and loves me. Ephesians 1 says, “In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:5-6, NAS).

Lying back on the towel, I exhale slowly, trying to take my cousin’s advice. Relax, relax, I tell myself. I watch the seagulls wheeling overhead in the bright blue sky. I close my eyes and feel the sun warming my face. And I listen to the surf crashing on the sand, and children giggling and squealing as they play in the water.

Emails can wait. Projects will still be there when I get home. Worrying about it or feeling guilty about it doesn’t help anything! My relationship as a daughter of the King isn’t dependent on what I accomplish today. I don’t need to prove myself or try to earn my acceptance. I can rest in my relationship with Him, and enjoy these “times of refreshing” (Acts 3:19, NIV).

What about YOU? In all your rushing around and busy-ness, are you willing to push the “PAUSE” button on life? Take time today to exhale and rest and be refreshed in the security of your Heavenly Father’s love for you!

Going Vertical!

MJ

“Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10 (NIV)

Huddled in blankets to keep out the early-morning chill, the small crowd sat expectantly on metal folding chairs in front of the church. Pale light was just starting to creep through the sky at this Easter Sunday sunrise service.

“I have always been a people-pleaser,” I began, my voice sounding thin and strange in the pre-dawn stillness.  “I try to fit others’ molds, meet their expectations, and gain their approval.”

Holding up a large mirror to the group, I continued. “It’s like I’m going through life with a mirror facing out, asking everyone, ‘What do YOU think of me? Am I OK? Do you approve? Are you happy with me? Am I doing it right?’

“Years of striving to be the perfect daughter, the perfect student, and the perfect employee drained every last ounce of my strength and energy, until finally there was nothing left. Exhausted and frustrated, I began to explode with anger and emotional outbursts at the slightest provocation.

“I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I thought I just needed to try harder, pray more, be stronger. But it wasn’t working. In trying to make everyone else happy, I ended up making myself miserable.

“For months I would dread getting up in the morning, thinking that I couldn’t possibly face another day and pretend that everything was fine, when I knew I was an emotional wreck.”

His Approval

Streaks of pink and orange were starting to light up the sky as I continued. “At that lowest point of my life, God spoke the truth my heart needed to hear. He showed me that though I had been trying so hard to gain everyone else’s approval, I had HIS approval all along! He assured me that I don’t need to earn His favor. He loves me unconditionally, just because I’m His daughter.”

With the rising sun warming my face, I read aloud Romans 8:11. “The Spirit of God, who raised Jesus from the dead, lives in you. And just as God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, He will give life to your mortal bodies by this same Spirit living within you.”

“Because Jesus has risen and is alive, and because I have given my life to Him, that SAME power that raised Him from the dead is living in me! It’s only HIS power living in me that gives me life and joy and strength for each day!”

>Radiant full sunlight shone on each face as we stood and sang together,  celebrating the life and power we have through the resurrection of Jesus.

“Christ the Lord is risen today!  A-LE-LU-JAH!”

Going Vertical!
MJ

“I pray that you may know… the immeasurable greatness of His power for us who believe… God put this power to work in Christ when He raised Him from the dead.” Ephesians 1:19-20 (NRSV)

A guest post by Jennifer N.

Squealing with delight, my four-year-old son Samuel chased the waves back into the ocean and built sand castles with his siblings. I was a good mom – I faithfully applied sunscreen and kept him drinking tons of water.   How ironic that as I tried to prevent sunburn and dehydration something much more deadly was lurking under the surface.

Soon after our summer vacation Samuel began screaming in pain every time he went to the bathroom. Our doctor detected something abnormal and sent us straight to the Children’s Hospital.  The biopsy showed stage IV prostatic embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare aggressive cancer requiring an equally aggressive treatment plan – fifty-four weeks of chemo, six weeks of radiation.

Here I was pregnant with my fifth child and discovering that my son had cancer. My life had changed. Our days were filled with hospital stays, blood draws, pain killers, sleepless nights. The seasons passed in a blur. The trees shed their leaves. Samuel shed his hair.   And when treatment finished, 412 days after diagnosis, Samuel’s oncologist told us Samuel won’t be cancer-free until 5 to 10 years from now.

The song “Held” by Natalie Grant buzzed in my head.   “To think that providence would take a child from his mother while she prays, is appalling… Who told us we’d be rescued? What has changed, and why should we be saved from nightmares? We’re asking why this happens to us…”

Hope in the Lord

I am helpless but not hopeless. Psalm 27:13-14 NASB says, “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Be strong and let your heart take courage; Yes, wait for the Lord.”

God’s goodness is not defined by whether or not He heals Samuel. His goodness is defined by Himself. My hope is not in Samuel being healed. My hope is in the Lord. I don’t feel courageous, but I know He can give me courage.

Natalie’s song continues…”This is what it means to be held, how it feels when the sacred is torn from your life and you survive. This is what it is to be loved, and to know that the promise was when everything fell, we’d be held.”

There are no easy answers. No quick fixes. Yet I hope in the Lord. He is what I cling to. He will heal Samuel – here on earth or in Heaven. And through it all, I believe we will still be held.

“Whom have I in heaven but you?And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

Psalm 73:25-26 (ESV)

Going Vertical!

Jennifer N.

Guest writer Jennifer N. is a devoted wife and mother of five young children who writes about the challenges of parenting, dealing with loss, and her unshakeable faith in her Savior for Ungrind, Designed to Flourish Magazine, and at musingsbyjennifer.blogspot.com.

Receiving Praise: A Prideful Experience?

Nervous laughter.  Avoiding eye-contact.  Self-conscious smile.  Shaking his head.  The young man’s body language was communicating loud and clear his level of discomfort.  He obviously didn’t know how to handle this.

“You are wonderful!”  With a big smile, Pastor Steve continued to affirm the young man, despite his protests.  As an illustration for the Fresh Start Communication Connection workshop in this East Asian city, Pastor Steve was demonstrating giving and receiving praise and affirmation.

“You are a blessing,” Steve looked the young man in the eye, one hand on his shoulder.  “I’m so thankful for you.  I appreciate the way you serve others.  And I love your smile!”

More embarrassed laughter rippled around the room.  The others seemed to be as uncomfortable watching this exchange as the young man up front was in receiving the praise!  In this culture, accepting a compliment is considered prideful.  The proper cultural response is always to deflect personal praise.

As we continued to share about giving and receiving affirmation, one bold young woman in the group raised her hand to ask a question.  “Isn’t receiving compliments robbing God of His glory?”  Murmurs around the room indicated that others had the same thought.

“The Bible says in Psalm 139 that you’re fearfully and wonderfully made,” Steve answered.  When I say you’re wonderful, I’m just agreeing with God!  It’s giving God glory for the wonderful creation He’s made!”

Agreeing with God

As this truth began to sink in with the group, I reflected on why it’s so difficult for me to accept praise from others.  I think most of the time I don’t really believe that what they’re saying is true.  I don’t really believe that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  Suddenly a deep conviction came over me.  If someone tells me “You’re wonderful,” and I deny it, I’m actually saying that God’s a liar!  If He says I’m wonderful, who am I to disagree?

The more I soak in the wonder of who GOD says I am, the more I am free to receive praise from others, if it lines up with what He says.  Receiving praise isn’t prideful – I’m just agreeing with God!  It’s not about me.  It’s all for HIS glory!  My spirit can humbly agree,

“Lord, I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your works are wonderful; I know that full well!”  ~Psalm 139:14 NIV

Going Vertical!

MJ

“I almost didn’t recognize you!” Lulu’s long curly pigtails bobbed as she shook her head.  “You look so different from what I remember!”

It was the first day of our Fresh Start workshop on this East Asia trip, and this girl with the cute glasses and contagious smile had taken an instant liking to me, asking to sit with me during lunch.  Between mouthfuls of steamed rice and fried fish, we discovered that we had met two years earlier, after a big conference in Hong Kong.

“That time when we met, you were really struggling with something.”  Lulu looked at me with concern, chopsticks hovering in the air.  “I could see it in your face.”

Thinking for a moment, I tried to recall what was happening at that time in my life.  And then I remembered.  I had just ended a serious relationship, and though I knew it was the right thing, I still struggled with feelings of discouragement and loneliness, doubting whether I’d made the right choice, and wondering if I’d ever find the right guy or if I’d ever get married.

Healing and Hope

“But now,” Lulu grinned, “You really look different!”

A lot has happened in two years.

Right after I saw Lulu that time in Hong Kong, I met the Fresh Start team at a retreat in another Asian city.  In an intense time of personal ministry, they helped me begin to process the loss and hurt from that broken relationship.  As I poured out my unmet desires to my Heavenly Father, He began to bring healing and hope.

Becoming Fully Alive

And that was just the beginning.  Over the past two years, more issues have come up as the Lord continues to bring healing to the deep places in my heart.  Slowly I’m becoming free from past offenses as I forgive and release the pain to Him.

When I’m in the middle of the process, it’s hard to see any change.  So it was encouraging to hear Lulu confirm that there was a big difference – “Now you are more confident, more brave, and more alive!”

I’m so glad my Heavenly Father hasn’t given up on me.  Even when I can’t see a difference, He is continuing to refine me for His glory and His purposes.  Day by day He is making me come more fully ALIVE!

“Those who look to Him are radiant.” Psalm 34:5a (NIV)

“The Lord will fulfill His purpose for me; Your love, O Lord, endures forever – do not abandon the works of Your hands.” Psalm 138:8 (NIV)

Going Vertical!

MJ