“I will go, I will go, I will go, Lord send me…” Sixteen thousand passionate college students sing in unison, arms outstretched. Individual faces are highlighted by the sweeping spotlights – some streaked with tears, some exuberant in worship, some quiet and reflective. As I stand in the midst of the massive crowd at the Urbana 2012 student missions conference, I’m struggling with an internal battle. Something inside me is holding me back.

“I’ve been here before, Lord,” I remind Him, as if He needs reminding. “And I remember what happened last time. I don’t think I’m ready to go there again.”

At Urbana 2000 I was a passionate and idealistic college student, ready to change the world. On the last day of the conference, I knelt down by my seat and told the Lord I was willing to go wherever He sent me. Within days after I returned home from Urbana 2000, I received an invitation to teach at a summer English camp in Shanghai, China. And that was the beginning of a new direction in my life. After graduate school I moved to East Asia for four years, where I taught English, learned some Mandarin, and made wonderful friends.

Burnout

But I didn’t know some of the challenges I was signing up for. Missing engagements and weddings. Not being there for the births of my friends’ kids, or being able to watch them grow up. Unable to attend my grandfather’s funeral. I was surprised at how hard-hit I was at times by loneliness, isolation, and the waves of homesickness that hit me at unexpected times. The long hours of teaching English, the cultural and language barriers with teammates, the conflicts with roommates, and the constant turnover of coworkers over four years left me physically and emotionally dry. Eventually I reached a point of burnout and had to return to the US.

It was probably the lowest point in my life. I felt like a failure. I was depressed. Whenever anyone asked me about my time in Asia, I cried. And I definitely did NOT want to ever go back. But through the ministry of Fresh Start and other godly counseling and prayer, the Lord began to heal the hurts in my heart and show me how He wanted to use it for good.

And now, 12 years after I first attended the conference as a college student, I’m at Urbana again. As I listen to the thousands of students singing “I will go, I will go,” I feel jaded and cynical.

“…To the world, to the lost, to the poor and hungry…”

“They have no idea what they’re in for,” I laugh to myself. “I KNOW how hard it is. I know the loneliness, and the frustration, and feeling like you wanna quit and go home every day…” Unable to fake it anymore, I sit down and cover my face with my hands to hide the tears.

“What are you so afraid of?” I feel the question more than hear it. No audible voice, but I know God is talking to me. “God, I don’t think I can go through all that again. The loneliness, the depression…”

A New Thing…

“Don’t remember the former things…” a snippet of a verse pops into my head. “…I am going to do a new thing.” A new thing. I exhale slowly and rub my face. A new thing. What amazing words. It doesn’t have to be like it was before. I learned from those experiences. I’m thankful for how God used that time in my life. But it doesn’t have to be the same. He’s going to do a new thing.

“…Take everything I am, I’m clay within Your hands…”

“God, I want to trust You,” I pray silently. “Even if I go through times of loneliness or discouragement, I know You will be with me. Help me not to fear. I know You are working all things for Your good. I choose to believe that You’re doing a new thing IN me!”

The cloud of fear slowly dissipates. I know there will still be hard times ahead. But like Peter, I take the step of faith out of the boat. Raising my arms I stand and sing with the crowd, “…I will go, I will go, send me!”

Going Vertical!
MJ

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV)

I apologize in advance for bringing up an indelicate topic. Miss Manners may not approve. But I have to say that there’s no sound I hate more than the sound of someone clearing the mucus in his throat and getting ready to spit. Just the thought of it makes me convulse involuntarily. Unfortunately, in the four years I lived in east Asia, I had to get used to that sound as a part of everyday life.

“It’s because of the pollution – that’s why people spit so much,” local friends told me. “It’s the dust in the air from the Gobi Desert,” others explained. “The wind blows it here and it irritates people’s throats when they breathe.” “It’s just a cultural thing,” some said, “We’ve always done it.” Whatever the reason, I didn’t like it. But I couldn’t make it go away. So I had to come to peace with the fact that people spit in this area of the world. And I tried to focus on all the wonderful things I loved about that country and culture, and ignore the spitting.

And it worked for awhile. I would still grimace and shudder when people passing me on the sidewalk started clearing their throats. But I told myself it didn’t bother me.

In my fourth year of teaching English in east Asia, however, everything started getting on my nerves. The mobs of people pushing to get to the ticket counter in the train station. The crowds jostling each other to get on or off the bus. The taxi drivers charging three times the normal rate just because I wasn’t a local. The kids staring at me as I rode my bicycle to school, and shouting “wai guo ren! wai guo ren!” (foreigner! foreigner!). But the thing that irritated me the most, like fingernails scraping on a chalkboard, was the clearing the throat and spitting.

One particular day as I was walking to classes, I was inwardly seething at the seeming rudeness and insensitivity of people around me. “If ONE MORE PERSON spits on the street,” I vowed to myself as I clenched my fists, “I’m going to PUNCH HIM!”

As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I was appalled at myself. “How could I even THINK such a thing? What is WRONG with me?”

Sadly it took me many months to identify the root of my anger – years of building frustration from feeling misunderstood, unappreciated, overworked, and not listened to by those in position of authority over me. But the threatening explosions of anger and feeling out of control of my emotions were the warning signals that something in my heart wasn’t right. And as I began to process the hurts that had led to this point, and to repent of my wrong responses, finally I was able to conquer my anger as I released my pain to God and chose to forgive those that had hurt me.

“Like a city breached, without walls, is one who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28). Do you feel like your emotions are out of control? Are you letting the hurts and challenges of life tear down the protective walls around your heart? Have you allowed anger, bitterness and unforgiveness to move in and take residence?

Examine the walls of your heart today. Forgive those who’ve offended you. Pour out the pain of your heart to God. And allow Him to repair the broken-down places. And ask the Holy Spirit to help you to guard your heart, so that your anger doesn’t get out of control!

“Above all else, GUARD YOUR HEART*, for it is the wellspring of life.”
Proverbs 4:23
(NIV)
*emphasis mine

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

By day five, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. Once again I woke up with a headache, stuffy nose, chest congestion, and deep hacking cough. I’d already missed almost a whole week of work. And even after staying in bed most of the day for several days in a row, I still felt miserable. I was ready to be done with it all.

So I finally gave in and went to see a doctor. He listened carefully as I gave a description of my symptoms, punctuated by coughing fits.

“What you described sounds like that nasty virus that’s been going around,” the doctor said. “This antibiotic may or may not help. You may just have to let the virus run its course. And that could possibly take 2 to 6 weeks. In the meantime, get lots of rest, drink plenty of fluids, and don’t go to work yet. You’re contagious.”

Even though the diagnosis wasn’t encouraging, I left the doctor’s visit feeling strangely relieved. For days I had been feeling lazy for wanting to stay in bed, feeling guilty for calling in sick, and wondering why in the world I couldn’t dredge up the energy to do simple tasks. Now there was an official medical diagnosis – a physical explanation for it all. I have doctor’s orders to stay home from work and sleep!

A Heart Exam

I remember the last time I felt this way. In 2008, when I returned to the US after four intense years in Asia, I was burnt-out and depressed. All I wanted to do was sleep for days and weeks. I had no desire to see friends or go out of the house. And if anyone asked me about how my time had been in Asia, I would burst into tears. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t “get over it.”

When I met the Fresh Start team in 2009, Pastor Steve and the others helped me do a “heart exam” to find the root of the problem. I finally realized, to my shock, that I was harboring bitterness and unforgiveness against my leaders for hurtful decisions they had made. Only after I identified the main offense, admitted how it had affected me, and chose to forgive and let it go, could the healing process begin. It was a huge relief to recognize the source of my anger, hurt, and frustration. It wasn’t an instant cure, but it was the beginning of the cure.

Do you struggle with anger, fears, shame, guilt, rejection, or depression? You can try to mask or minimize the symptoms, but they won’t go away until you find the cause.

The psalmist David says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. Test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). Ask the Holy Spirit to do a heart exam and discover the root of the problem. He will lead you “in the way everlasting” – the road to freedom!

Going Vertical!

MJ

If anyone had the right to bear a grudge, it was Joseph.

From favored son to despised slave in the house of an Egyptian official – Joseph must have wondered what he had done to deserve this.  His father’s lavish attentions had stirred up a burning jealousy in his eleven brothers, who attacked Joseph and sold him to Egyptian slave traders.  And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Joseph was then wrongly accused of something he didn’t do and thrown into prison!

“I was stolen out of the land of the Hebrews,” Joseph related to a fellow prisoner, “and here also I have done nothing that should have put me into the dungeon” (Gen. 40:15).  Rejected and abandoned by his family, alone and forgotten by the world, Joseph could have sunk into despair and self-pity.

Not A Victim

But Joseph refused to be a victim, trusting instead that God had not abandoned him. We see that “the Lord was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love… whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper” (Gen. 39:21).  Joseph was eventually released from prison and promoted to second-in-command over the entire nation of Egypt!

The day came when Joseph’s brothers, facing starvation because of a severe famine, came to Egypt seeking food.  When Joseph revealed his identity, his brothers feared he would take revenge.  As the second most powerful leader in Egypt, he could have had his brothers enslaved or killed.

“What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” they worried (Gen. 50:15).  Nervously the brothers pleaded for forgiveness.

Weeping and embracing his brothers, this slave-turned-official assured his brothers that he had already forgiven them.  “Do not be afraid!” Joseph told his brothers. “Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen.50:20).

How about you?  Are you allowing yourself to be a victim of your circumstances?  Are you giving in to hopelessness and despair?  Choose today to forgive those who have hurt you, trusting as Joseph did that God has a greater purpose than we can see.  Forgive and release your pain to the Father.  If you let Him, He will use even the lowest points in your life for His good!

Going vertical!

MJ

“You don’t know me, but my name’s Joan and I just found out I went to the same boarding school as you!  Can I meet you?  I have to talk to you!”  Joan showed up at Debbie’s house with her young kids in tow, and they ended up talking and crying together late into the night.

Though the boarding school had a reputation for high academic standards, the director controlled the students with fear and manipulation.  Penalties for breaking the rules were severe.

“In my senior year of high school,” Joan recalled, “The director got angry at me for something, and she  locked me in a cleaning-supplies closet!”  While the rest of the class went on their long-awaited senior trip, Joan was left behind, forgotten.  She pounded on the closet door until someone finally discovered her.

“It’s difficult for me to talk about these things,” Joan confessed.  “The memories are still painful.”

Debbie shared similar stories, remembering her shame and humiliation when the director yelled at her for a minor offense in front of her classmates.  Twenty-seven years after she was a student there, Debbie decided to return to the grounds of the boarding school, seeking closure.

Healed Wounds

“God had been taking me through the process of healing, and I had made the choice to forgive the director of the school,” she told Joan.  “But I didn’t know how it would affect me to see all those familiar buildings again.  I knew that I had truly forgiven when I didn’t feel any more anger or bitterness.  Instead, I felt compassion for the director, as I thought about how she was a wounded person too.”

Though Debbie’s wounds had healed, the scars of those experiences served as reminders of what the Lord had done in her. Her scars allowed her to share the message of forgiveness, bringing healing to other wounded hearts.

Wounds heal, but scars remain.  Jesus’ scars are evidence of the suffering He underwent willingly on our behalf.  His scars are a testimony of God’s grace, and the forgiveness that He offers us.  Allow Jesus to bind up your wounds and bring healing to your heart, as you forgive those who have offended you and release the pain and hurt to the Lord.  Your scars can be a declaration of victory!

“But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5 (NIV)

Going vertical!

MJ

“It’s my father’s fault that my mother died when I was twelve years old,” Mrs. Wang said bitterly, wiping away a stream of tears.  It was late one night in the second city of our East Asia trip, and Mrs. Wang was sharing with some of the Fresh Start team her heart-wrenching story of a childhood with a distant, abusive father.

“He beat my mother.  And He beat my brothers and me.  He didn’t provide for the family.  He didn’t love us.  My mother had a bitter life, raising eight children, and my father didn’t help her.  That’s why she got sick and died!”  The pain was clearly very deep.

“Was your father wrong?” asked Pastor Steve gently.  Pausing to reflect, Mrs. Wang answered slowly, “Not really.  He couldn’t help it.  He grew up in a family that didn’t show love to him.  So he didn’t know how to love.”

“What is our Heavenly Father like?” prodded Pastor Steve.  “Is He loving?  Is He kind?  Does He provide for our needs?” Nodding, Mrs. Wang quickly replied, “Oh, yes!”

The Gap

“Then, is there a gap between what our Heavenly Father is like, and what your earthly father was like?  God is loving – your father was not loving.  God is kind – your father was abusive.  And God provides for our needs – your father did not provide for your family.  That’s the gap.  That’s what you need to forgive.”

For more than forty years, Mrs. Wang had protected her father’s reputation, excusing his behavior and burying her pain.  But when she was able to admit that her father was wrong and how his behavior hurt her, she could start the process that would lead to forgiveness.

Who’s in your gap? In our relationships with others, there’s always a gap between our perfect Heavenly Father’s character – and the actions and attitudes of imperfect human beings.  Whether it’s a big gap or a small gap, there’s always a gap.  Be honest with yourself and with God.  Identify who or what is in the gap.  Allow His Holy Spirit to help you get started on the path to freedom!

“Test me, O Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind.”  Psalm 26:2

Going vertical!

MJ

Flying down the snowy hill, I clung tightly to the edges of the cardboard box, preparing myself for a crash landing at the bottom.  I was already regretting my decision, but it was too late to turn back now.  What on earth made me think it was a good idea to go sledding with a recently sprained foot?

Just a week ago, I was hopping around on crutches. I’d fallen down some cement steps in Germany and pulling a tendon in my right foot.  But this thirteen-inch snowfall over Christmas was the most snow Virginia Beach had seen in twenty years, and I didn’t want to miss the rare opportunity for some winter fun with my family.  “My foot’s almost back to normal,” I told myself. “It’ll be fine”.  I felt like I was ten years old as I slid down the hill again and again with the icy wind in my face, landing in a sprawling heap at the bottom.

By the time I finally returned home, however, and peeled off my snow-encrusted shoes, my foot was complaining at the mistreatment.  The soreness and swelling was a painful reminder that it hadn’t completely healed yet.  Going sledding at this stage of recovery had not been the wisest choice.

The experience made me think of a conversation I’d had a few weeks earlier in Germany with Pastor Chris, a teacher at the Bible school where I was serving as a volunteer.  He asked how my experiences these last few months in Germany differed from the four years I worked with an Asian ministry in China.  To my embarrassment, I started crying as I talked about the supportive, encouraging atmosphere in Germany, and the leaders who trusted me to make good decisions.  It was very different from the authoritarian, hierarchical Asian system, where I was expected to do as I was told and not ask questions, even when I was struggling with physical exhaustion and emotional burnout.

Slow Healing

“I don’t know why I’m crying,” I apologized, blowing my nose.  “It’s been two and a half years since I’ve come home from China.  I thought I was over these issues.”

“Sometimes the healing process takes longer than we expect,”
Pastor Chris responded gently.  “You have to allow time for the Lord to complete the work in you.  And it seems this time in Germany is part of that process.”

Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God makes everything beautiful “in His time.”  God’s timing is not always according to my preferred schedule.  My impatience to hurry up the healing process and “get on with my life” can slow down the recovery even more!  Just like my sprained foot needs time to heal and get strong, so the emotional healing God is doing in me will take time.  But I know He’s at work, and I know His timing is best!

“And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue His work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns.Philippians 1:6 (New Living Translation)

Going vertical!

MJ

A bright pink wheelchair bumped along a dirt path amid radiant fall colors, but the young woman in the chair was not enjoying the ride.  Shifting and fidgeting in her seat, she seemed to be conflicted internally.  In a soothing yet firm voice, the man pushing the wheelchair whispered as they navigated the forest trail, “You can’t walk.  You’re not strong enough.  You need this chair.  You need me.”  Shoulders slumping in resignation, the woman finally sighed in agreement, “I guess you’re right.  I am weak.  I do need you.”

Sitting in the audience of the university student film festival that night, I could identify with the woman in the wheelchair.  When I returned to the U.S. after four intense and stressful years in Asia, I succumbed to a heavy cloud of depression that lingered for months.  Every time I started to think about a new job, moving to a new place, or starting something different, rising dread and panic would keep me in fearful indecision.

I was emotionally paralyzed, bound by the lies of the enemy.  Night after night I tossed and turned in bed, trapped in hopelessness.  “Things will never change.  I’ll be stuck here forever.”

An invitation to join the Fresh Start Asia ministry trip stirred up painful memories of failed leadership from my previous experiences in Asia.  Even though I knew the members of the team cared about me and wanted God’s best for me, I was hesitating.  I was worried that history would repeat itself and I would be hurt again.

Breaking through my anxious thoughts, God spoke to me through Isaiah 43:18-19:  “Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.  Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is!” (The Message).  As I took a step of faith and joined the Fresh Start trip, God began healing my pain from the past and giving me hope for a future different from what I had experienced or imagined.

In the climax of the student film, the young woman realizes that the only thing keeping her in that wheelchair is her fear.  She defiantly stands and takes her first hesitating steps, breaking the bonds of worry, doubt, and anxiety.  Like the girl in the film, my healing process will take time, and my steps are shaky at first.  But I’m so thankful God has liberated me from paralyzing fear and despair and is leading me on the path to freedom!

Going Vertical!

MJ

When I was in 3rd or 4th grade and my Sunday School teacher talked about forgiving your enemies, I tried really hard to think of someone, anyone, who was my enemy. I had this image in my head of forgiveness as being a monumental act of granting pardon for a horrific crime, like Joseph forgiving his brothers for selling him into slavery – And I certainly didn’t feel I had any issues that fell into that category. Any hurts I had received I kept well hidden from the world, thinking they weren’t significant.

This “stuff it and forget it” philosophy followed me into my adult life. Yes, I felt misunderstood and unappreciated by my leaders, but I just needed to be more patient and submissive. Yes, my roommate was manipulative and controlling and cruel, but I must have done something to upset her. Forgive? Me? I don’t need to forgive anyone. Forgiveness is for people with serious problems.

But when at the end of four years of teaching English in East Asia I had to return to the U.S. from physical exhaustion and spiritual burnout, I was faced with the reality that I did have a problem. After all those years of stuffing my pain, the unforgiveness, bitterness, and resentment had been building to the point of explosion. A man bumped into me on the street and I almost screamed at him. A friend commented that a dish I had prepared needed more salt and I burst into tears.

Forgiveness Frees Us

I was finally able to understand the importance of forgiveness. Whether the hurt was small or large, intentional or unintentional, if I was affected by it, it’s significant. And if I was hurt, I need to forgive. As I acknowledged the emotional wounds and chose to forgive, I was able to release all the pent-up pain and be filled with the joy and peace of the Father! I have never felt such freedom!

Are you stuffing your hurts instead of acknowledging them? Is your heart being filled with bitterness because of unresolved issues from the past? When you get “bumped” by people or situations that irritate you, what spills out? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking your pain isn’t important, or your hurts aren’t significant. Jesus cares about your pain. He wants you to be released. He will give you the grace to forgive. You can have freedom in Him!

GOING VERTICAL!

MJ