He Who Promised is Faithful (the Story of Ethan David)

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“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” (Hebrews 10:23)

This story has been a long time coming. Some of its chapters were written years ago, tucked away in my heart (and my journals) as I waited to see how it might end. It’s the story of our son, Ethan David, and my journey to motherhood. More than that, though, it’s a story the One who inspires our hope and of His faithfulness, more enduring than the mountains.

“You will be a mother”

The first prophetic word I ever received was about being a mother. I was nineteen years old and gathered with a group of young people at the Boiler Room in Kansas City to debrief the Onething and Urbana conferences. I was still reeling from the emotions of the Onething conference, my heart churning with the changes I was about to make in my life. At one point, I gathered with our campus ministry group for a prayer time with a couple from the Boiler Room. As we huddled close in a circle in one of the offices there, the couple prayed specifically over each one of us. When my turn came, they spoke over me: “You will be a mother to many, both your own children and others.” At the time, children and family were far from my thoughts and plans, but I jotted their words down in my journal and then promptly forgot about them.

Like a seed, though, those words tucked away in my heart began to grow. Over the years I revisited them over and over and that idea that I was made to be a mother began to shape my identity in significant ways. After Derek and I got married, I began to receive more words about being a mother, so many, in fact, that I came to almost expect it whenever a stranger prayed over me, because it happened so often.

But while my longing for children increased, marriage was hard and having children felt like an impossibility for years. We struggled financially, cycling through low-paying job after low-paying job, barely scraping by most months. And we struggled relationally, our individual hurts grating against one another and pushing us further apart. Eventually the hurt and disappointment was too much and I shut away that desire for children and motherhood. For a while I wasn’t even sure I wanted children.

Eventually, though, we both graduated from college and found decent jobs. Thanks to Derek’s job, we finally had health insurance. And gradually we began to work through our relational issues as well, helped along by a counselor, inner healing classes, several older couples, and a whole lot of grace.

In January of last year (2014), I felt a subtle but persistent invitation from the Lord to let myself hope and dream about children again, to reopen my heart to that longing that had been dormant for so long. That February and March I had a series of dreams about being pregnant and expanding our house. At the Boiler Room retreat at the end of March, a stranger came up and asked me if she could pray for me about being a mother. Not five minutes after she finished her prayer, Katie Egli came to the microphone and began praying for those who felt barren. She declared that what felt like barrenness was just God’s timing and that life was going to come out of the river of worship there. I didn’t share these dreams and words (so many in just a few months) with anyone yet, but as I mulled over them in my heart, I felt a sense of expectancy building in my heart. I wondered if perhaps the season was shifting and changing. If perhaps the time was finally coming for me to bear life.

“He who promised is faithful”

By May, Derek and I had finally reached a place where we both felt at peace about getting pregnant. We talked and dreamed together about it, even discussing names and making plans to move into our own space to have room to grow our family. We felt together that it was finally time.

But as spring turned into summer and the months passed, we still didn’t get pregnant. There were a few times that we thought we might be, only to be met by the disappointment of another cycle flowing away without life. We hadn’t exactly been trying for long, but each month felt plenty long enough to bring the sting of grief and disappointment.
Somewhere near the middle of the summer, I began noticing 11:11 fairly often. I would randomly look at the clock and notice it or would find it in the timestamp of e-mails and texts. When I shared it with our housemate Lebeka, she said that, for her, 11:11 always indicated a transition coming.

One morning (August 14), I finally asked the Lord about it, about what it might mean for me. I felt like He said, “Hebrews 11:11,” so I looked it up. This is what it said:

“By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.” (Hebrews 11:11)

That verse immediately felt like a promise, a reminder that God would be faithful to all those words spoken to me over the years about being a mother. Though I wasn’t past the age of bearing children, I had keenly felt that barrenness, both in the years when having a child seemed impossible because of financial and relational reasons and later, in the months of wanting to get pregnant but not succeeding. But when I read that verse, it pushed deeper the assurance that I would be a mother.

In the following months, I continued to see 11:11 regularly (eventually almost every day) and each time, I would remember and declare, “He who promised is faithful.”

“Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”

But despite that word and the hope it brought me, we still didn’t get pregnant. For a variety of reasons, I began to believe that it might be a long journey for us, significantly harder than I expected. In August and into September, I felt myself sinking into a place of deep discouragement, struggling to cope with the thought of months (or even years) of waiting in the pain of unmet expectations.

One Sunday morning (September 7), I was at the Boiler Room, tears running down my face during worship as I felt particularly discouraged about not being pregnant yet and discouraged about life and community in general. Julie Prestige came over to me during a prayer time and told me that when she looked across the room, she had seen me as a star shining clear and heard the song “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” over me:

“Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are.”

I shared with her a little bit about my deep longing to be pregnant and my disappointment at how hard it seemed to be for us and she prayed for me.

“When God says it, it’s as good as done”

The very next week (September 14 – exactly a month after God spoke Hebrews 11:11 to me), I was scheduled to be with the preschool kids at the Boiler Room. It had been an intensely busy week and I was still feeling emotionally raw on top of that, so I was dreading having to be with the kids, having to lead them in anything. Quite honestly, I headed into the morning with a terrible attitude about it all.

But then I opened up the lesson for the day and it was all about God promising Abraham a family as numerous as the stars. We were supposed to speak over each child, “You are a star in God’s family”. As soon as I read the lesson, I felt overwhelmed by a sense that this was for me, confirmation of Julie’s word the previous week.

I arrived in the prayer room that morning, surrounded by my class of wiggling preschoolers, and Carrie Halim started telling the story of Abraham and Sarah and of God’s promise to them about a baby. She then told her own story of how, ten years before that, God had promised her that she would have another baby in ten years. Her growing belly as she sat in front of us was a visible testament of His faithfulness to that promise. As she rested her hand on her belly, Carrie declared, “When God says it, it’s as good as done.” She invited all the kids to stretch out their hands and pray for anyone in the Boiler Room who was longing for a baby.

And there I sat in the midst of them, struggling to hold my emotions together (after all, I was supposed to be the teacher there), as Champy softly played “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” on the piano in the background (though I didn’t notice it at the time). A sense of awe washed over me as I felt like those words and promises – the Hebrews 11:11 word, Julie’s word, and all the words about me being a mother – were coming together in that moment. More than ever before, I felt the nearness of God in that journey and understood that He is faithful, not just to His promises but to us in the waiting.

“11:11”

After that, I began to share my journey with a few close friends, sharing the longings and the words and the disappointment and the hope. They joined me in believing that He who promised was faithful and that I would be pregnant.

Kate Bryan was one of those friends and when the Boiler Room scheduled a prayer week to start on November 11 (11-11), she invited me to help her set up for and pray into it. Together we created a prayer space focused on the themes of light and hope. That theme of hope often popped up in my own quiet times as well and even in Sunday mornings at the Boiler Room.

With all those words and the promise of 11:11 everywhere, I had this idea that perhaps I would find out that I was pregnant on November 11, at the start of the prayer week. It seemed like the perfect fulfillment of those words, the perfect timing. My sense of anticipation was palpable as I approached that day.

But when 11-11 arrived, I was most definitely, without a doubt, NOT pregnant. Even in the midst of my disappointment, though, I felt a deep conviction that it was all the more important to declare on that day that “He who promised is faithful”. After all, “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). I was also reminded of Isaiah 54 (a passage that had been significant to me for years, since the season when we thought we might be adopting two children and then lost them). It begins with a call for the barren woman to sing and to expand her home, even before she sees her promised children:

“Sing, barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children
of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband,
says the Lord.
Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your tent curtains wide,
do not hold back;
lengthen your cords,
strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread out to the right and to the left;
Your descendants will dispossess nations
and settle in their desolate cities.” (Isaiah 54:1-3)

So in the prayer room that day, I wrote out this declaration:

“Your name is Faithful and True (Revelation 19:11). You are the King of Justice. You are faithful to your covenant of love to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:9). You are faithful in all you do (Psalm 33:4). You are faithful to all Your promises (Psalm 145:13). You are faithful forever (Psalm 146:6). You are true to your word, your promises, your vows. You are steady in allegiance and affection, loyal and constant. You are reliable. You can be trusted and believed.”

I felt a tug in my heart to renew my hope, to open up my heart again and to dream of the possibilities (even though it had led to heartache in the past). I felt the gentle invitation from the Lord to see each month as a chance to hope again instead of just a fresh wave of grief, and to act on that hope. For us, that meant not only actively trying again to get pregnant but allowing ourselves to talk and dream about how we might announce to our families that we were pregnant.

“A hope fulfilled”

And then on December 6, I woke up in the early hours of the morning and took a pregnancy test, with Derek watching anxiously by my side. Within seconds that second line appeared, loud and clear, confirming the subtle signs that I was already feeling.

We were pregnant!

He who promised is faithful.

And now he’s here, Ethan David, our promised one. Not just a promise anymore, not just an idea or a hope, but a real, live child, full of energy and personality. He delights us with his smiles (and expressive eyebrows!) and fills me with anticipation for the years to come, when I will watch him grow into who he was created to be.

Ethan’s name, which means “constant”, is a declaration of who God is and His nearness to us in that long process of waiting.

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When a Fish Sandwhich Girl Meets the Abundance of the Father

For a while now I’ve felt God pressing into the places of my unbelief that He is faithful and will provide for us in all circumstances (you may remember this post from this past winter).

About a month ago, at a friend’s suggestion, I looked into the life of George Mueller. I began with a small book of excerpts from his diary. I tucked it into my purse to read on the bus, but was soon gripped by account after account of God’s provision. Sometimes the provision came just in time (money the day rent was due, bread as the family prepared to sit down for dinner) and sometimes it came as soon as he prayed. God provided money, food, material items, workers and supplies for the orphan home he founded, physical strength, and even a vacation. All without Mueller expressing his needs or desires to anyone but God. Now I’m working my way through a biography of George Mueller by Roger Steer. Every time I open it, I’m challenged by the account of this man who was so enthralled by the sweet mercies and graciousness of God that he trusted Him to provide for every need, large or small. I can feel it shifting the paradigms of my heart.

This shifting kicked into high gear a couple weeks ago when Dave Blackwell spoke at the Boiler Room about the abundance of Jesus (you can listen to his talk here – do it). He began by sharing a story about when an uncle of theirs came to visit and took them out to dinner at a fancy seafood restaurant on the plaza. When Dave opened the menu, he immediately went to the cheapest item on the menu – the fish sandwich. He was all set to order it when the uncle asked if they liked crab legs. When they answered that, sure, they liked them, he proceeded to order several pounds of crab legs. And from then on, if they even so much as mentioned that something sounded good, the uncle would call a waiter over and order it. This uncle’s generosity was so extravagant, far beyond the fish sandwich that Dave would have chosen for himself.

Then Dave retold the story of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:5-13), a situation where it would have been impossible for the disciples to give even the barest minimum, even just a mouthful, to the multitudes. Yet Jesus supplied as much as they wanted and then some – twelve baskets of leftovers after everyone had eaten their fill. Then came the story of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11), where Jesus provided the equivalent to about six hundred bottles of wine, because He cares about the celebration and the details. He wanted to show His glory, to  challenge the disciples with the reality of His overflowing bounty. He wanted to reveal the character of the Father, the extravagant giver.

I recognized myself in Dave’s description of “the fish sandwich kind of people,” the ones who settle for the cheapest thing they can get, the bare minimum of what they need. Not only do I literally order the cheapest item on the menu when I go to a restaurant, but I’ve locked the highest bar of my expectation of God’s provision on just getting by with the basics. I even remember a time, shortly after I graduated from high school, when I classified myself as “working class poor…those people who work and work and work but only barely make ends meet. They are the people who drive junkers or walk because they don’t have a car at all. They aren’t homeless or starving; they just never get beyond the basics of getting by.” (from my journal, October 4, 2005). Even more recently I’ve often felt a nagging weight of fear that it’s all up to me to work hard, to earn my way, to make sure we get by. This leaves no space, no expectation, for the abundant, extravagant generosity of the Father.

So that afternoon I began confessing this wrong mindset towards God and asking Him to reveal more of who He is, more of His goodness, faithfulness, and provision. Over and over the prayer broke out of me: show me. Show me. Please, Abba, show me.

And He has.

First it was through boxes and bags of things sent home with me from work as we cleaned and packed up our classrooms: a whole pack of computer paper, several jars of peanut butter, ice cream (the same day that Derek had mentioned a little wistfully how good ice cream sounded), apples….and hundreds – yes, hundreds – of mozzarella cheese sticks. I brought home four gallon-sized Ziploc bags full of them and we threw away more besides that. I gave them away to the interns, to friends, to neighbors, to the kids, and still there were more than we could eat ourselves. (Derek joked that it was kind of like in Exodus when the Israelites were set free from slavery and left carrying the riches of the land with them).

The next day we finished packing the last of the classrooms. As we gathered up our things to leave, I noticed the schoolyard garden, still full of vegetables, and asked if we needed to do something with it. My boss, flustered with the final details of packing everything, said that she’d pay me a little extra time if I stayed to clear it out. So I recruited a friend from the Boiler Room and we spent a couple hours chatting as we cut vegetables and tugged out weeds. In the end, we brought home four large grocery bags full of fresh, homegrown vegetables: kale, collards, red potatoes, beets, onions, and cilantro. I gave some to the teachers and staff at the school, sent some home with the friend who helped, passed some on to the interns, and still had more than we could eat (we’re still working our way through the collards in particular). That evening I made a meal almost entirely out of vegetables from the school. As I washed the dishes afterwards I suddenly realized that I was experiencing the abundance of Jesus that Dave had talked about that Sunday, the abundance that I’d asked God to show me.

Since then my awareness of God’s provision has only heightened, even in the little things. I had an interview at the library (the day my job at the after school program ended, I came home to find the e-mail asking me to come in for an interview). The day after my job ended, I began to nanny once a week for the Blackwell boys (they even offered me an extra day this week, just in time to pay next month’s rent).

And on Thursday I had been thinking about how we’d need to look for another bookshelf when we move because two out of the three that we’re using right now belong with the house. That evening we took the kids down to the park and there across the street, half buried in a pile of junk that someone had cleaned out of a house, sat a gorgeous solid wood bookshelf, with inlaid wood designs, a row of little drawers, and a deep, rich finish. Immediately God reminded me of how I had been wishing (not even praying, just wishing) for another bookshelf that morning. And there He had provided it, not with a bare minimum plywood shelf but with a solid, beautiful piece of furniture. Now it sits in the living room, waiting for the day when we have our own place. Periodically I go over to it and run my hands over the wood, maybe tug open one of the little drawers, and am struck again by the goodness of my Abba in the way He cares for us.

As I learn to recognize God’s provision in these things, gratitude spills out more and more freely. And with that recognition and gratitude come a gentle swelling of faith to ask and trust in the good plans of God for our lives. I’m reminded of something that Dave said, that God is not adverse to giving physical things because we can see and touch them and they act like a switch, turning on revelation of what God is like. This is still a work in progress, but as we walk into summer, I feel like the switch is turning on and the waves of God’s goodness are washing over old fears and mindsets more powerfully than ever before.

“As for me I am poor and needy, yet the Lord takes thought and plans for me. You are my Help and my Deliverer. Oh my God, do not tarry!” – Psalm 40:17

The Change of Seasons

A fellow gardener posted this blog about her overflowing garden (hello zucchinis….), ending with a provoking question about the what God might be speaking through the changing seasons, through “the juxtaposition of seasons, the constant rhythm of yearning in winter and overflowing fullness in summer”.

In my life, I feel like God has spoken a lot about His faithfulness in the changing seasons (particularly when I look back) and about sustainability in my walk with Him. The seasons in my life have changed numerous times, even just in the past few years, with seasons of abundance and fruitfulness alongside seasons that have felt as barren as any winter. I think those winter seasons expose my roots — or sometimes lack of roots — in a healthy way and force me to dig deeper into God until I touch the sustaining warmth and water of His presence. Often it forces me to abandon my comfortable ruts and venture into new places. But in every season, I can see His hand in my life (though sometimes not until I’ve passed out of the darkest, coldest time).

It reminds me of this passage from Jeremiah:

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord.,
whose hope is in the Lord.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
It fears not the heat when it comes,
its leaves stay green;
in the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

What about you? Has God spoken to you through the changing seasons?