Fear and Grace

[Part 9 in Liz’s story of God’s calling her into inner city behavioral health care]

For my undergraduate graduation, my college ministry group gave me a copy of When People are Big, and God is Small by Ed Welch. I took a look at the description on the back cover, which talks about people-pleasing and living for the approval of others, and tucked the book away on my book shelf with the thought that it may be a helpful book for me to pass on to someone else someday.

I still chuckle when I think about my self-delusional, optimistic evaluation of my own heart’s motives! Big transitions or decisions points often bring my people-idolizing tendencies to the surface of my free thoughts. So after setting a date to visit the health center, I was not surprised by the sudden onset of anxious and hopeful future fantasies that focused on me earning the approval of key leaders during my visit there. Nor was I caught off guard by the see-saw of emotions from excitement over what God seemed to be unfolding to fear of rejection or disappointment.

I am very thankful for the patience of many friends, who handled my anxious questions about typical medical interviews with grace and tact. “Just be yourself,” one laughed at me, “and they’ll love you.” “Don’t worry,” counseled another, “but everyone you talk to will likely evaluate you.”

Ugh. Here I needed a different flavor of daily grace: the grace to forget myself and focus on loving the people I met. Or maybe this is just another variation on the prayer to not try to figure out the infinite (number of possible conversations I could have with all the different key players) but to spend myself in love.

Again, God provided this daily grace in an unusual way—I never had an interview during my trip in March. I participated in interviewing two other candidates, discussed ministry and counseling models, ate barbecue, shadowed Tim, started working through various counseling interventions, attended a small group Bible study potluck, participated in neighborhood girls’ night, played with Tim’s children and pets, drank coffee and talked with his wife, and never interviewed.

Remembering the trip still makes me laugh. I was anticipating pulling out my references in defense of my character, education, and practice. I had been coached in how to answer potentially tricky questions. I had reviewed data on the health center, including memorizing the names of residents so that I could talk with them.

And instead of life unfolding according to my plans and preparations, God’s sovereign grace leveled those. Ephesians 2:10, which I had been sharing with one of my counselees, spoke to me in fresh ways: I was created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand for me to walk in them. Duh! My life is about God’s grace to us in Christ, not my own merit! So any answers to my prayers for clarity regarding the puzzle pieces of my life will also be a gift of his grace, to be received with thankful joy and firm resolve to walk in the path he lays out for me.


And this path would involve more waiting, since Tim could not hire people for another estimated 4–6 weeks, which would be the middle-end of April. And I was working three jobs, including two counseling jobs that required 6–8 weeks of notice before leaving.

How do I faithfully fulfill my commitments to my current counselees and agencies and be free to move when a position opens up? Like a trapeze flyer, could I let go of current jobs before having a firm offer?

(photo found on this website: http://theremedy4u.wordpress.com/2010/01/25/being-caught/)

Fear and Grace



[Part 8 of Liz’s story of God’s calling into healthcare in an inner city setting.]

Waiting can be challenging. Whether you have been waiting for the next post in this series or waiting for these posts to end, waiting involves patiently holding out hope in the midst of uncertainty, perplexity, and anxiety.

Yet more than waiting for Love’s wise answers, I have been learning more about waiting for Love Himself. In mid-January, I prayed:

“On the way home, as I was thanking You for Your steadfast love,
I realized what You’re calling me to in this season of waiting.
Waiting on You is like pulling out my snuggle blanket
and nestling close to Your heart while listening to the pounding rain.
It’s like taking a rambling hike with You, through the woods,
without a thought to the time or where the path may lead,
because You are holding my hand,
setting the pace,
leading me in Your wisdom, lovingkindness, sovereign power (over all predators!)
with me, intimately, by Your indwelling Spirit.
In this way,
waiting is not about efficiency,
but about intimacy!
I’m not waiting for You to do certain things,
answer particular prayers by a given time;
I’m reveling in the relationship we have right now,
by the power of the Holy Spirit.

I’m waiting—walking with You, at Your pace, enjoying Your presence, content with Your promises and provision….”

The image of Jesus, fast asleep on a cushion in a violently pitching ship, in the midst of pouring rain had been marinating in my mind. And as I played that scenario over and over, I realized that I react similarly to the disciples who scream at Jesus in their anxiety, “Don’t you care that we’re dying?!?” At the same time, I long for growing faith that enables me to curl up on the cushion next to him, finding comfort and rest in his presence.

And the image of hiking so vividly captured my experience of not knowing where I was going, finding the path filled with unexpected switchbacks, recognizing my own limitations in packing or preparing, and enjoying the journey instead of fretfully rushing ahead to the destination.

Waiting, as challenging as it is, doesn’t have to feel like you’re sitting outside the principal’s office. It can be a leisurely hike with your most trusted, intimate, powerful, loving, wise Friend (who also happens to be the Creator, Savior, and Ruler of the world).


Puzzle Pieces Unite?

[Part 7 in a narrative of Liz’s calling into counseling as a member of health care team in an inner city.]

For all my discussions with counselees about overcoming barriers to obedience in their own lives and relationships, I am a wimp. Yet by this point in my journey, I am a desperate wimp, who has been tasting God’s faithfulness and steadfast love and who is longing for answers to prayer.

So I do what many desperate wimps might do in my situation: I hide behind my role with Medical Campus Outreach and start touring the booths at the Global Missions Health Conference. Asking about information for other people feels much more safe than asking for yourself. So I begin collecting information from a group that donates medical supplies to short-term trips, something that could potentially be useful for neighborhood outreaches that MCO holds. A simple conversation about glucometers leads the woman to ask me what I’m passionate about (gulp!) which prompts a conversation with the man in the next booth about neighborhood transformation. Before I know it, he has determined that I need to talk to the people in the black tent and is guiding me there to that booth.

As I explain a few of the key puzzle pieces to the friendly residents—counseling, inner city, healthcare—they tell me that I need to talk to Tim*, who’s wearing a hat. “Seriously?” I wonder to myself, “In all these people, I’m supposed to find a guy wearing a hat?” This is starting to feel like a bit of a wild goose chase…which is exactly what I just prayed for. Hmm.

After checking back in with them two more times, I finally see a guy wearing a hat and introduce myself. I share a 2-minute version of my story, find out that he’s a counselor who is starting a behavioral health program, exchange iPhone contacts, and set up a time to meet for coffee in the morning during the first breakout. “Perfect,” I think, “I’ll be able to pick his brain about setting up a behavioral health program and be back in plenty of time for the closing session.”

The next morning I am sitting outside a Starbucks, sipping my coffee with relaxed anticipation. Eager to learn from him, yet comfortable in pursuing counseling ministry in Camden/Philadelphia, I chat easily about my own life experiences, counseling theory, and puzzle pieces. Four hours later, we return to the conference and talk about setting up a visit to his inner city health center.

And my world shifts in four hours as, unbeknownst to Tim, the puzzle pieces of my life start fitting into a surprisingly coherent picture. Without provocation, he inadvertently mentions every single puzzle piece as being part of the DNA of the center’s approach or of his own plans for integrated behavioral health. Even my passion for global outreach and unreached people groups finds sympathetic vibrations in their desire to train up and send out medical teams to hard-to-reach areas. And even the further study that I desired, which I assumed was impossible and less important, may work out. And I could live, work, and worship in the same inner city community!

Mulling these things over at my hosts’ house that night with others, I laugh at my own pride (thinking that I could have ever planned something like this) and God’s goodness. And as we crawl into our sleeping bags and turn off the lights, I cry silently, overwhelmed that our God could love me this specifically and particularly. What wondrous love is this, O my soul?

The long drive back from Louisville provided ample time to process the earthquake that just took place. I test out the story on my driving companions, whom I didn’t know well before our epic road trip.

“Sounds like you’re going to move there! Would you really leave Philly?” one of them asks incredulously, in part because the Philadelphia area has been home for half my life and I am rooted and embedded in multiple ministry relationships and contexts.

“Of course,” I answer with thought but without hesitation. “I can’t sing ‘to the ends of the earth we will go’ and not go to this clinic, even if it is in the South.” Yet the conversation forces me to think through the road ahead—uncertain timeline of program development, very different cultural setting, and a different type of counseling. I think about telling my family and close friends what I’m contemplating and shudder. “I don’t have grace for that yet,” I remind myself. “When I need it, God will give it to me.”

And He does. My dad believes that this is God’s fit for me and I need to pursue it. My sister is heart-broken because she knows this is what God has for me and starts preemptively missing me. Surely my mom will not support this. After all, she made me write my funeral plans when I was 23 years old and moving into a gentrifying neighborhood to live with my pastor and his family. Yet my mom tells me that she believes that God has been uniquely preparing me for this. Close friends cry with me when they hear how the puzzle pieces seem to be forming a new word: the name of this southern city.

At the same time, my small group reluctantly prays for, and vigorously prays against, this new calling, out of love and a desire to keep me in the area. January starts and the health center is not ready to pilot their program yet, and I have not heard about a visit date. What if this is not what God has for me next?

*Not his real name, of course!

Puzzle Pieces Unite?

Prayer and Umbrellas

[Part 6: After a brief break while transitioning, I’ve resumed the narrative of God’s calling me into counseling in an urban setting as part of a health care team. The first five parts covered June 2010 through October 2012. This entry takes us up to November 2012. Six or seven more installments, and the story will be up to date.]

After working for 16 hours on Tuesday, I counseled for a full day on Wednesday, picked up a friend nearby, and started the overnight drive to Louisville, KY, for the Global Missions Health Conference. For reasons that still remain mysterious to all of us, the five intrepid motorists decided to drive overnight, rather than leave early in the morning and miss the first break-out session of the conference.

Unfortunately, I lost the art of napping several years ago, so even though I had a driving break, I didn’t sleep. I couldn’t sleep either after we settled in at our gracious hosts’ home and took much-needed showers. So I drank coffee, attended the break-out session, and thoroughly enjoyed the worship and main session. By the time it ended and we returned back to our hosts’ home, I had been awake for 41 hours. Dave took one look at me and gave me his professional recommendation: sleep!

The next morning, I meandered into GMHC’s prayer room—which was amazing and definitely worth the price of admission! Sculptures, tapestries with verses, maps, interactive displays, candles, rugs, plants, pillows were all arranged in little corners that provided privacy and community. As I opened my prayer journal to pray, I saw a quote from Faith’s Checkbook by Charles Spurgeon that I had copied earlier that morning:

“The Lord is not dependent upon ordinary methods but can surprise His people with novelties of wisdom and power. Thus we are made to see more of God than ordinary processes could have revealed. Although the Lord may not appear for us in the way we expect, or desire, or suppose, yet He will in some way or other provide for us. … Alas! We too often fail in the exhibition of true and practical faith! Let us this day be on the outlook for answers to prayer. As the child who went to a meeting to pray for rain took an umbrella with her, so let us truly and practically expect the Lord to bless us. Let us make the valley full of ditches (2 Kings 3:16–17), and expect to see them all filled!”

While praying for Christ’s kingdom and my own needs, I was overwhelmed by how lost I felt and prayed for direction. Specifically, since I dislike feeling pressured by people working in ministry booths, I prayed that God would lead me to someone who could help me with the disparate puzzle pieces and that He would lead me to that person indirectly. I knew that if I walked up to a booth, and the worker started telling me why I should go to his country, that I would get even more confused. I also knew that I was still physically tired and thus more vulnerable to emotional decisions. Drying my tears, I took a deep breath and walked out toward the booths with my umbrella, looking for rain…

Prayer and Umbrellas

Some Answers

In the midst of waiting and entrusting God with my impossibly confusing mess of puzzle pieces, I started noticing what God had been up from June 2011 through October 2012. During these 15 months, He had opened up a close friendship with a medical ministry area director and his wife, which naturally led to me attending their Bible study for healthcare students who taught Bible studies on their campuses. He had also given me a few good experiences meeting med students through cooking for the Summer Medical Institute, which eventually resulted in an administrative job with Medical Campus Outreach. Suddenly, I was immersed in the world of healthcare ministry, including outreach to the underserved. Additionally, during this time, God gave me the joy of teaching two classes on mental health issues to community health promoters at a local Christian health center. I found interdisciplinary conversations on patients and health outcomes fascinating and eventually acclimated to the different social rules for dinner conversations.

Due to constantly fluctuating income that bordered on insufficient, I decided to move back in with my parents and reassess how to responsibly pursue my calling. While this meant that my commute instantly doubled, it also meant that with my belongings mostly packed in storage, I was much more available to move quickly on any opportunity that God brought my way. This was not exactly what I had anticipated when I prayed about being “on call” for Christ and his kingdom! But God’s answers are often so mundane that we can easily overlook them.

Moving home also opened my heart to finally attending and quickly joining this church plant in Camden, NJ. Through this multicultural, inner city church, God challenged me to start to face, examine, and work through my own cultural assumptions in light of the gospel. My small group has been family for each other, throughout various difficulties. What beautiful answers to prayer for community!

Another answer to prayer came in the form of financial assistance to attend the Global Missions Health Conference in November 2012. After spending some time coördinating transportation and housing for 22 students and young professionals from the greater Philadelphia region, I looked forward to learning about God’s work in the world and wondered if there may be a space for me on a medically oriented team. I also hoped for many good conversations with folks in our group who were wrestling with a sense of calling and next steps. And I anticipated returning back to the Philadelphia area with encouragement to persevere in my current jobs (now down to three) and ideas about how to start something in Camden, in a couple years.

But I had no idea what God had in store…

Some Answers

Wait for Love Himself

[Part 4…]

Lest I veer towards an overly rosy view of my growth in Christ over the past couple years of journeying towards healthcare in an inner city context, I have visual reminders of my wilderness experience, including this picture.

It was early April 2012, and I was down to five part-time jobs—two counseling-related and three administrative jobs. I was approaching a difficult decision about moving out of my Center City neighborhood and moving home because of financial pressures. After listing all the responsibilities I was juggling, I drew a picture of how I was feeling and added descriptive words or phrases that came to mind.photo(1)

Like musical motives that provide coherence to a composition through their frequent returns and variations, these descriptions summarize much of my spiritual-existential experience through November 2012. As I tell the story now in June 2013, I can see how a very minor theme (“only hope: steadfast love of Yahweh never ceases”) written near the center of the page, at the bottom, has taken over the whole symphony, even though none of my uncertain pieces of life have settled. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Back to the story: a few days later, I prayerfully listed current and desired “life targets”—a way of organizing where I sensed God calling me to grow personally, while I continued to wait for the pieces of my callings to come together. One interesting little piece that found its way into my “primary” life target circle was “on call”—this desire that I would be ready and willing to go wherever, whenever God calls me with no turning back (and that I would be actively practicing this now in my current relationships and job responsibilities).

Holistic healthcare. Underserved people. Perplexity. Daily mercies. God’s steadfast love in Christ. On call. These themes intertwined to form cacophonous racket, haunting melodies, and stirring passages at various times and in different ways. Added to this mix were metaphors from a poem I wrote, roughly based on Jesus’ pointed observations that unless a seed falls down to the ground and dies, it remains alone:

“… unwasted pain
by faith embraced
now blooms to delight God and man.

yet today
sleeping still
buried deep within God’s hesed
grow by faith
hope and hurt
wait for Love’s wise answers.

for Love Himself. …”

Perhaps my dreams, my unfulfilled visions for service and ministry were seeds that needed to be planted in God’s hesed, his steadfast love for us in Christ. Maybe my calling was not only to spend my strength in love but also to wait for Love himself, not just for his blessings.

Wait for Love Himself

Beyond Figuring Out

[Part 3 in Liz’s story…]

Elucidating the pieces to my calling left me feeling like someone had dumped three or four puzzles together, shaken the box, and removed pieces, leaving 500 unrelated pieces with no picture to guide me. I puzzled over the infinite combinations and variations until, like the Grinch, my “puzzler was sore.”

Or, on more discouraging days, I resonated with the title character in the children’s book All Wrong, Mrs. Bear, who was unhappy because she believed that God had made her all wrong. I just didn’t quite fit in any clear categories that offered remuneration: inner city secular mental health counseling centers, Christian social work agencies, fee-for-service biblical counseling centers, care team for overseas workers, or overseas trauma work.

Why couldn’t I be satisfied in one of the occupational groupings? Was I seeking satisfaction in a particular job and place of ministry, forgetting that all work is subject to vanity and frustration? Was I seeking solace for unanswered prayers in finding some all-encompassing vocation that trumped my desires for marriage and family? Was I seeking the approval of my most recent boyfriend, who had helped me clarify and verbalize my desires for holistic, inner city ministry? Was I hoping to bribe God into giving me the kind of life I wanted through my overtures of sacrifice? Was I seeking some achievement or compelling passion to boast in? Or, since our hearts are always a mixed bag of godly, ungodly, and inordinate desires, where was I seeking these things in ways that undermined the gospel?

The answer to all the “Was I” questions was “Yes,” at various points and to differing degrees. Disappointments, silence, and ongoing sorrow over the next eight months revealed more and more of my leaky cisterns that could never hold my hope or give fresh grace for daily needs.

Fresh grace for daily needs, while walking down a path of constant confusion and perplexity, became a frequent prayer. I often returned to this quote from Charles Spurgeon’s Morning and Evening that summarized my daily call:

“Let me not strive to understand the infinite, but spend my strength in love.”

The pieces to my calling seemed infinite. The labyrinth depths of my heart plummeted beyond my sight. Financial and logistical calculations while working 7 part-time jobs proved to be quite complex. My life was beyond figuring out.

Yet I was still called by God to spend my strength, to pour out my life in love for my family, housemates, friends, coworkers, and counselees. To spend and be spent, while waiting for God to act, continually revealed the paucity of my own resources and my absolute dependence on God for fresh mercies, including forgiveness for all the ways I brought dishonor to his name through my anxious unbelief and self-protective figuring-out.

Understanding the infinite—impossible. Spending our strength in love—difficult, but not impossible, given the powerful work of the Holy Spirit in us.

Beyond Figuring Out

Liz’s Story: Becoming a Bird-Brain

So here’s one good starting point to my story…

Sipping Starbucks at a café on Broad Street, I alternated between journaling and absentmindedly watching sparrows peck at crumbs on the sidewalk. It was Saturday, August 20, 2011, and I was taking a much needed spiritual retreat following a tumultuous two month period which included my graduation from seminary, the collapse of two exciting job possibilities, and an enigmatic ending to a dating relationship. Mounting financial stress, uncertainty about next steps, and sorrow over transitions and losses darkened my thoughts.

Recognizing a tune on the radio drew my attention back to the present. We had been learning this Brazilian song in Wide Open World, a children’s missions program that I taught on Sunday nights, and the instrumental music brought back the words:

“Rejoice, I say,
I say rejoice in the Lord always;
When days are happy and when days are grey,
I say rejoice in the Lord!
There is no circumstance that God does not command.
He’s in control of everything!
Be still, be patient, and upon His promise stand.
Lift up your voices and sing:
Alleluia! Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Who works by grace and not by merit.
Always rejoice in the Lord.”

As I savored my coffee with the Lord, the raw messiness of my life interacted with the audible reminder of rejoicing in God’s sovereign mercy and the visible reminder of God’s provision for all creation (as seen in Him feeding birds–Matthew 6:25–34). What would it look like for me in this season to find life, hope, strength in God’s promises? How can I rejoice in the Lord, even when my circumstances are difficult? And if I really believed that God would supply everything I needed, what would I do for his glory? Where did I sense him calling me?

I wrote later that night: “Father, I think You are calling me to be more of a “bird-brain” in this season of radical uncertainty. … The birds I saw by Starbucks this morning—they don’t worry about how they’re going to make it because You supply all their needs! And if you do that for birds, how much more will You provide for Your created, redeemed, beloved sons and daughters?”

So if my God is in control of everything, if He gives me strength and life in the midst of my sorrows, if He cares for me even more than the birds (who never worry about their lives), what bird-brained calling would I prayerfully pursue?

Puzzle pieces emerged: Counseling. Underserved, inner city, multiethnic neighborhood ministry. Christ-centered, holistic care. Mentoring Christian healthcare students. Missional. A story in itself, each piece bore witness to ways God had been using me or passions He had been developing over the past few years. Yet combined together, nothing made sense.

Oh well! These are my bird-brained ideas, impossible prayers uttered with wavering faith. I do believe! Help my unbelief!

[PS–I looked through all my pictures in vain for sparrows. So I chose this picture of a gull balanced on a log, several feet from the magnificent descent of Niagara Falls. While the tumultuous river rushes by, the gull remains completely calm and unafraid, cared for by God.]


Liz’s Story: Becoming a Bird-Brain