I picked up this book last winter at Urbana, a student missions conference that takes place every three years in St. Louis. It was a purchase made on a whim, a title in a large stack. With all the controversy about bathrooms this past spring, transgender issues were on my mind and I wanted to be more informed. Although David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl opened my mind to the nature of what it means to be transgender (I never really understood how deep the identity struggle is), there is so much I don’t know or understand. My faith also spurs me to ask questions: How should Christians respond to transgender issues? What does the Bible have to say on the subject? So many of my fellow Christians have responded to transgender people with fear and hate–an attitude that makes me extremely uncomfortable. So I picked up Yarhouse’s book to learn more. Continue reading
Last week, I had the opportunity to attend InterVarsity’s trip annual Urbana Conference. For five days, St. Louis, Missouri, was invaded by 16,000 college students and adults seeking to learn about world missions. This year’s conference was themed around one very important question: What story will you tell?
As a writer and avid reader, stories fuel my everyday life. I breathe them in, soaking in the perspectives of others. I breathe them out, letting my own experiences take shape through words. Throughout the week, we heard countless stories from around the world. We heard from indigenous people in the Pacific Island, refugees in Jordan, college students in Mexico. We heard from the persecuted church in the Middle East–the stories of men and women imprisoned for their faith. We heard the stories of our black American brothers and sisters, whose voices have been long silenced by racism and inequality.
We didn’t just hear their stories. We entered into them. Multicultural worship is a challenging, humbling experience. It was uncomfortable at times. We fumbled our way through Arabic, Korean, Hawaiian, and Swahili, to name a few of the languages. My mouth stumbled over the strange words and sounds. Even though it was different and awkward at points, entering into the songs of brothers and sisters from around the world gave me a larger picture of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is for everyone, for every tribe, tongue, and nation. I got to experience what that looks like at Urbana.
As a writer attending a conference centered around stories, I can’t merely describe what went on. I need to take up the pen and join in, adding my words.
I suppose my Urbana story starts with answering a question: Why missions?
My whole life, I’ve felt very drawn to Europe. Growing up, I remember reading about far-away places and having this sense of urgency. I couldn’t explain it, but I needed to go there. I needed to see these places with my own eyes. I needed to walk the streets and see the faces of the people who lived there. In 2013, I spent a semester studying abroad in London, England. During my three and a half months there, I traveled a great deal. Finally, I could see and experience the places I’ve been dreaming about my whole life. Along the way, I learned a great deal. I learned that the world is a dark, empty place, and that even though Europe is largely comprised of first-world nations, there are people who desperately need the light and love of Jesus.
Upon returning to school in the United States, it was a matter of months before I felt the need rise up in me again. I had been thinking and praying about going into ministry for a while, but my thoughts and prayers began to turn overseas. “What if,” I asked myself, “feeling drawn to Europe isn’t just me wanting to travel? What if God wired me with this desire, growing it with time, into a calling?”
Eager to dedicate my life to God, I embraced the calling. He wants me to go to Europe? I’m all in. But so much remained uncertain. Where would I go? What would I do there? Who would I serve? How would I find the money? What does the missions field even look like?
Attending the largest student missions conference in the world seemed like the logical place to answer these questions. Last week, I arrived in St. Louis, willing to go, wanting to serve, ready for God to point the way. What I didn’t realize was that, although I was intellectually ready to take the plunge, my heart had a long way to go.
Let me pause here for a moment. You should know that, although I feel very deeply, I’m not what one would call an emotional person. I rarely cry. I’m not very touchy-feely. Emotional things don’t seem to impact me like they do others. It’s as if my heart is sealed behind a series of walls and gates. Within these walls, I feel very deeply and these feelings guide the majority of the large decisions I make. But my heart and mind don’t often connect. It takes time for the right keys to get into the right doors.
When one enters into service for the Kingdom of God, it is important for their heart and mind to align.
Going into Urbana, mine did not. My brain was ready. But, frankly, my heart didn’t actually care about the people I was supposed to be going out into the world to serve. Of course,I didn’t realize any of this until after the fact. More on that later.
The first half of the conference was extremely affirming. To share a bit of my testimony, I grew up in a highly politicized church where one was treated differently if they held a different perspective. My experience with the American Evangelical church is that it places certain values over others. College was a wonderful time of exploring other worldview and perspectives. However, I’ve been living at home for the past nine months. Being back in this highly Republican community has me wondering if my family is crazy for caring about things like racial equality, LGBTQ rights, showing kindness to refugees, affirming women as leaders in the church, etc. Through speakers and seminars at Urbana, God affirmed that we are not crazy and that we are not the only ones thinking about these issues. He cares about them too.
As awesome as this affirmation was, I felt like something was missing. “I’m at the largest student missions conference in the world”, I thought. “Surely God brought me here to do more than affirm my perspective.”
I was right.
On Tuesday night, the large group session was dedicated to the persecuted church. Individuals, often unnamed and unseen, told their stories of being imprisoned and tortured for their faith. They talked about God empowering them to love their captors even in the darkest hours of their lives. We then were given time and space to pray for the church. Banners with different countries were raised and we could gather beneath them, praying for each nation.
It was a powerful night–16,000 people lifting their voices in prayer. As I knelt on the hard concrete praying for Kenya, I felt God’s Spirit rising in me. As I prayed, my words intangible even to me, I felt the keys to my heart unlock–The layers pulled back. Finally, the deep desires of my heart were accessible and in the open.
“Lord, I want to go,” I prayed. “I want to go. I want to go. I want to go.” It was a prayer of frustration. I came to Urbana hoping to find direction from God that would empower me to take the next step. Where was my direction? Where were my answers? As the dust from my prayer settled, I felt God’s voice: Not yet, Amelia. Wait.
I was confused. “What do you mean I have to wait?” I asked God. “I’m ready!” But, up until that point, I was ready with my mind. But my heart was sorely lacking. That night, God opened the floodgates to my heart and prepared me to not only hear His voice in my mind, but in my spirit.
If I had to describe Wednesday in one word, I would say it was humbling. With my newly opened heart, I came repeatedly before the Lord and listened to the words He had for me… These words were not comforting.
That morning, our passage in Bible study was the end of Matthew 25, where Jesus divides the sheep from the goats and says, “Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters, you did for me”. As a large group, we studied the intricacies and implications of the passage deeply. I emerged with the sense that, despite my readiness to go abroad, I hadn’t given much thought to the people I’d actually be serving. I realized that when it came to serving others, I didn’t know how.
One of Wednesday’s speakers was David Platt, pastor and author of the books Radical and Follow Me. His books were the catalysts of my decision to go into ministry. I read them during a very spiritually challenging season and they pushed my desire to serve God with my life. It was incredible hearing Platt speak. The power, authority, and incredible love of God is so present in his voice and words. He talked about the woman in Matthew 26 who pours a very expensive jar of perfume on Jesus’ head as an act of love and submission.
Platt’s words cut me like knives. One statement hit my spirit like a ton of bricks:
I see myself in that statement. Here I was, trying to figure out how to get going when my heart and spirit had completely forgotten why I’m called to go in the first place. In my ambitions to go abroad, I lost my heart for Christ. Platt went on to say, “Missions is not meant to be your life. Christ is your life. Jesus is worth losing everything for.”
These words are so simple and straightforward, but my heart forgot. I forgot what it feels like, what it means to love Jesus unconditionally. My spirit churned and I felt God’s voice rising again, with words that were not comfortable: “Amelia, how can you go into the world and represent My Kingdom if you love yourself more than you love Me? You want to serve me, but don’t know how. The answer is simple: love My children. Care for them. Give yourself for them. What you do for them, you do for Me. Go, Amelia. Feed My sheep.”
I left large group that day feeling burdened with God’s Spirit, wondering what living out this command looks like in a practical manner. What does it look like? How am I to care for others? What skills and abilities do I have to contribute? Where do I fit in the grand scheme of things? How can I serve others with the gifts I have? As I meditated on my questions, God slowly revealed answers. I attended more seminars and large group sessions and began to receive smile answers. I could go into what those answers were, but that would end in lots of tangents. So I’ll start wrapping this up…
I went into Urbana feeling confident and ready. I left feeling the opposite–small, weak, and inadequate. There is so much to process. There’s so much I don’t know. Amid a big, dark world… I’m so small. So unsure. I’m leaving for England in less than a week and I don’t feel ready. I’m stepping into the vast unknown with a one-way ticket and have no idea what is in store.
The most terrifying thing is that I honestly don’t know if I’m ever coming back. At least, not permanently.
But maybe that’s the point. God isn’t looking for people who are ready. He’s not interested in how prepared I feel. He cares about my heart. He wants me in a position of weakness and humility, for it is then that I need Him most. At Urbana, He showed me that my prayers need to shift from “Where will I go?” to “Show me how to love others the way You love me”.
I don’t need to have all the answers. What I need is a heart for Christ. Like the woman in Matthew with her alabaster jar, I need to place myself under God’s authority. I need to relinquish control and let my story align with the beautiful story God is writing all across the globe, trusting that God knows what He is doing and that He will provide the next step.
I suppose the title of this post is a bit misleading. Yes, this is the story of how my life was impacted by attending Urbana. Additionally, it’s also the beginning of a new story–a story I don’t know the end to–a story in which I don’t hold the pen. There is still so far to go in the journey of cultivating a heart for others. But this is a start.
When one of your favorite bands plays at a music festival a mere twenty miles from your house, you can’t not go. Right?
Yesterday, I attended the annual Sonshine Music Festival with my old roommate, Alli and one of her childhood friends. I’ve wanted to go for a long time, but this was the first summer I’ve managed to be in the crowd. Usually, the festival takes place in Wilmar, MN–near where I went to college. This year, the event moved not only towns, but states! It’s now in Somerset, Wisconsin–just across the river from home.
Although the festival goes for many days, I only went for one. Because of the location shift and a brutal thunderstorm in the middle of the night, attendance was low. Alli, has been to Sonshine many, many times and was shocked at how small the crowds were.
It was a perfect July afternoon–hot and sunny. I dressed for the weather in breezy shorts and a tank top, but still managed to sweat gallons. I can’t count how many bottles of water I consumed just to keep hydrated.
Heat complaints aside, it was really fun to see all the different bands. I got to see Remedy Drive, a group that played at several youth conferences I attended in high school. We watched Children 18:3, who hail from Morris (my alma mater). I’ve seen the band’s members lead worship several times, but never perform. They went CRAZY. We hid in the back of the crowd to prevent getting trampled by overly enthusiastic fans.
The best part of the day, though, was Rend Collective. Hailing from Northern Ireland, their music is folksy and hard not to dance to. Although they’ve become pretty famous in the Christian music sphere over the past few years, it hasn’t affected their heart for worship. Their concerts aren’t performances. They’re all about celebration, authenticity, and family.
During Rend Collective’s time on stage, all my troubles melted away. We were lucky to be in the front of the crowd, as close to the stage as possible. As they played song after song, I couldn’t stop smiling. Despite being relatively reserved most of the day, I jumped and shouted and danced without a care in the world. The set wasn’t about putting on a good show–it was about celebrating the honor of serving a wonderful God.
We didn’t stick around for the big closing act–the Newsboys. I know they’re one of the biggest bands on the Christian music scene, but honestly… I’m not really a fan. We watched a few of their songs, but they completely lacked the heart and soul of Rend Collective. So while the other Sonshine attendees screamed and shouted excitedly, we packed our chairs and headed to the car.
All in all, it was a day well spent. I love attending concerts and they’re even better when they’re bands close to my heart. I ended up with my worst sunburn of the summer, but wouldn’t change a thing.
Want a taste of Rend Collective’s style and philosophy on music? Check out the following video. It’s got the same spirit as their live shows.
Over the past year, I’ve been in a position where almost all my close friends live far away. For the most part, this absolutely sucks. I’m the type of person that doesn’t need to be surrounded by people all the time. Give me a few solid souls to lean on and I am set. It’s been incredibly difficult without the people I love most in the world by my side. No amount of reading and Netflix can compensate for deep talks and belly laughter.
The one good thing, though, is that it makes the time I have with my dear ones so much more precious.
This past weekend, I was able to spend time with some of my favorite people in the world, who happen to live in Austria. We met at Camp Shamineau, where I spent the past three summers working, but our friendship has gone far beyond camp life. When I studied abroad in Europe, I visited their home in the Alps. This weekend, I brought them to see my home.
I don’t really know what to say about my time with the Austrians. I dragged them through several charming small towns, to a local parade, a waterfall, and (of course) Target. We laid around, ate good food, and soaked in each other’s company.
Being around people you care about brings out the best in you.
During the past few months at home, certain pieces of myself have gone dormant. I’ve forgotten what a joy it is to serve others, to put their needs before my own, and what it feels like to be surrounded by my Christian brothers and sisters. My faith does best when I am on my own, independent of my parents, and although this summer hasn’t been BAD, it hasn’t been productive. I’ve lost sight of what it means to GROW in my faith. I’ve settled for getting by.
The two days spent with my Austrian friends reminded me of these things. Just by being in their presence, listening to them talk, I felt God’s Spirit flare up in my heart.
I felt a desire to grow, to serve, to love. I wanted to spend time investing in my faith instead of hobbies and activities.
Saying goodbye to Anna, Emma, and Anna-Laura today was incredibly sad. They’re some of the dearest people in my heart and, since we live on other sides of the world, I don’t know when I’m going to see them next. But being with them helped remind me of so many things that I had let slip by, giving me badly needed encouragement regarding my future plans. I am so thankful for that.
However, I do know that these girls and I are friends for life. I never imagined I would come to be tied so deeply to a bunch of people from Austria–of all places, why there? I cling to the knowledge that we will meet again. Friends like them don’t come along every day–and when they do, they stick. I don’t know how much time will pass between today and our next meeting, but I earnestly look forward to it.
This weekend was, by far, the highlight of my summer thus far.
Three years ago, I turned to my roommate Alli and announced that I felt like God wanted me to start a Bible study. The only problem was I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
Alli looked over at me with a sly smile. “Here’s what we’re doing. You and I are going to lead a Bible study together, we are going to target it towards single girls, and we are going to talk through our problems.” (At the time, the both of us were struggling a lot with being single. When you’re interested in dating good, Christian guys, Morris is not the place to be.)
That, friends, is how I became a small group leader.
That first year, we were known as the Single Ladies Bible Study. We read the book When God Writes Your Love Story by Eric and Leslie Ludy. Although we had some good conversations, I really don’t recommend the book. A lot of the content is really simplistic and cheesy.
Every year, the Bible study has changed significantly. After year one, we dropped the “Single”, lost Alli to graduation, and our numbers dropped significantly. I was abroad for half the year and, when I came back, the once bustling group was down to three or four core members. We had lots of great talks, though, and really got to know each other.
This year, I co-lead with my friend Jourdan and the group changed entirely. Last fall, when we met to discuss what the study would look like, we had no idea how many people would actually show up. The core group returned and, to our surprise, so did a boatload of new faces. It really was a wonderful year. For the first time, it really felt like a community. The variety of the group still amazes me–we had freshman to seniors, newspaper lit nerds to athletes, biology to Spanish majors. Everyone was so different! But we all got along and learned so much from each other.
As leaders, Jourdan and I were pushed and stretched in ways we hadn’t expected. Before we knew it, we were each meeting one-on-one with several of the girls, mentoring and encouraging them. We planned Girls Nights once a month and came up with our own lessons every week. Planning lessons was a big challenge, but also an incredible opportunity.
Last week was our final meeting. The girls all surprised me with a party celebrating my graduation. Everyone brought treats, one girl made chicken tacos, and Jourdan made a cake. Their parting gift to me was a little plastic box covered in quotes. Inside, each girl had written out encouragement notes and shared their favorite Bible verses. It’s something for me to take with as I move into the future. Although I was pretty brain-dead the whole time (on account of the library staff party and English major picnic being the same night), their thoughtfulness really means the world to me.
Although it will continue to meet next year, I’m really sad to see it go. Being a small group leader has been one of my favorite parts of college. I’ve learned so much about myself and what it means to be a leader and have gotten to know so many wonderful people. Serving and loving people is hard, but it’s one of the greatest blessings life has to offer.
I loathe being told to share my faith.
I mean, it’s something that we are called directly to do. Jesus says in Matthew 28:16 to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” We’re encouraged to share our faith, to spread the good news, to be lights in the darkness of the world.
But in Christian circles, there’s a lot of guilting that goes on when it comes to evangelism. So often, I come from those talks feeling like, by not sharing my faith, I’m doing something wrong. And then I feel guilty. I feel like I should share my faith out of obligation and duty, not because I want to. So often, evangelism makes me extremely uncomfortable. In order to do it, I feel like I must have all the answers, like I have to start going up to my classmates, shoving Bibles in their faces, and taking them through the Romans Road. It makes me uncomfortable and inadequate. I feel pressured and that, if I don’t present the message well enough, I’ll be a failure. Sharing faith in these ways sounds just seems unpleasant. I don’t want to do it. But then I feel guilty for not wanting to do something God clearly asks of us.
The thing is, I genuinely want to share my faith. I want to tell people about the joy, the love, the security I have in Christ. But I don’t want to demean others and I’m afraid of being seen as the Bible-shoving stereotype.
At IVCF last night, an old classmate came and talked about the dreaded topic. What she said really hit home.
To summarize her message, she talked about talking about faith the same way we talk about things excited about. We don’t have to have a perfect message. The outcome of sharing our faith does not depend on us. We don’t have to worry about how we are received, because God is bigger than that. He can handle it. Instead of preaching to people, we should talk about Jesus as if He’s a real person. We shouldn’t spew off boring facts as if he’s merely a figure in a book. Instead, we need to be open and honest about what He’s like, what He says, what He does, and what it’s like to hang out with Him.
Boldness is key, but not to belittle. Not to condescend. Not to preach. We need to be bold in sharing our excitement about who He is and what He is doing in our lives. Because if we’re excited, then it will spread to the people around us.
The other thing that is key is trust. We need to trust that God is bigger than us. He’s bigger than us, bigger than our circumstances, bigger than our voices. We don’t have to defend Him. He can defend Himself. He knows what He is doing.
I’m not very good at sharing my faith. I really struggle with this. As previously stated, I’ve always felt this sense of obligation, that I should be doing more, saying more, preaching more–and this has always made me REALLY uncomfortable. But all this time, I’ve been thinking about it the wrong way. I don’t have to go out and do anything. I just have to be me. I simply have to live and not restrict my relationship with God to my personal life. I have to let the love I have for my savior, my best friend, my beloved show. I have to be open about Him–open about what He’s doing and willing to tell people about my excitement.
It’s encouraging to know that I don’t need to have it all together. More than anything, though, it’s wonderful to walk out of a faith-sharing talk without feeling guilty. For the first time ever, I actually feel good about being open about my faith. Which is incredibly freeing.
We’ve come to the final day of Tis the Season. It’s Christmas Eve, my favorite day of the year. But instead of decorating cookies with my younger brother, I’m sitting here pondering the meaning of Christmas.
(As I wrote that last sentence, I could hear Sam from the next room go, “How ‘come Amelia’s not helping?” I really should be helping. Sam’s decorating takes a violent turn if left alone for too long. We’ve had a number of bloody snowmen cookies over the years.)
Christmas is many things. It’s a time for family and friends. It’s a time for giving. It’s a time for laughter, for memories, for nostalgia. More than any of those things, though, it’s a time for JOY.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about happiness and joy. At first, the two words appear synonymous. Dictionaries will tell you that they’re the same. But I disagree. Happiness great, but it is fleeting. It’s a state of mind, something that you feel for one moment and then is gone the next. I can chase happiness and something still falls short. The thing about joy, though, is that it runs deep. It sinks into the soul. Down in the core of who I am is a small, indistinguishable flame. When the metaphorical storms of life hit and everything seems to fall apart, joy remains. It is steadfast, unshakable.
Where does this joy come from? Easy. It comes from knowing and being known by God. When it comes down to it, that’s what this holiday is all about.
The creator of the universe, the almighty God entered into His creation as one of His created. He was born not to the wealth, glory, and splendor He deserves, but is born of a peasant in a barn. He grew up poor and even during the three years He spent teaching, healing, and performing miracles, He was hated and despised by the very people He created. By the very nature of who Jesus is, He deserves honor and praise. But by the people He created, the ones He came to redeem, He received slander, torture, and death.
Despite everything, He still loves us. He still wants us. It doesn’t matter how broken we are, He is right there with open arms. He not only provided salvation from our sins, but adopted us as His children. He wants to know us and be known by Him. He doesn’t just want us to know things about Him, to live a life of empty religion, but wants us to know who He is, His character, and His love. It’s intimate, it’s deep, it’s rich… and there for free even though we deserve none of it. Woah.
This beautiful intimacy of what we celebrate on Christmas is the essence of JOY.
Peter sums it up perfectly: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy…” (1 Peter 1:8-9)
One of the most popular Christmas songs out there is “Joy to the World”. Growing up, I never thought much about the words. This year, though, they resonated in my heart. Although they’re associated with the first coming of Jesus, they’re actually about the second. The words speak of the immense joy that we will have when all is finished and we can physically be with Him once more. The joy is so great that Heaven and Nature sings–even the rocks cannot help but cry out in adoration.
What better way to end Tis the Season than with inexpressible, glorious, inexhaustible, steadfast JOY?
Merry Christmas, everyone!
When I was younger, I was incredibly ambitious.
It drove me insane when girls I knew got married straight out of college, had babies, and settled down to be stay-at-home moms who homeschooled their kids. I vowed never to become that woman.
I was determined to go to a academically prominant college, earn a degree, and begin an illustrious career. I wanted to do things with my life–I wanted to go places, to meet people, to gain prestige and success.
Although I’ve always maintained high academic standards, my freshman year of college is when everything began to change. That year, I found myself pursuing my Christian faith more than anything else in my life. As the years have gone by, my eyes have gradually shifted from my ambitions to the sheer joy of knowing Christ.
My relationship with Jesus Christ has taken over my life. Every part of who I am has been affected. My friendships, relationships, on-campus involvement, grades, and even what i want to do with my life has changed dramatically from freshman to senior year. Everything else in life is meaningless compared to knowing and being known by Him. His love is incredible.
When I came into this school year, I dreaded everything. I wrote several posts (Looking ahead and Return to School) expressing my dissatisfaction. I think the reason I was so apprehensive was because last year was incredibly challenging. I spent half the year across the world from everyone I loved and the other half learning that, because of my time abroad, I no longer fit with the people I loved in the same way. It was a year of learning, a year of lonliness, a year of great frustration. Part of me was scared that this year would be the same.
But the thing is, God is good. He sees me and knows me. He understands where I was at and knew exactly how to provide for me. No, He didn’t bring me close friends to replace the ones I have lost. But He gave me more of Himself. People cannot fill the needs of my soul, but He can. Not only does He fill me, love me, and provide for me, but He wants to be known by me. He desires intimacy with me, deep closeness. And, as I’ve responded to that over the past few months, I find myself falling more and more in love with Him. There’s a line in a Christmas song that goes, “Hearts unfurl like flowers before Thee / opening to the sun above”. That’s me. And oh, it’s so beautiful.
Not only has God been providing for me personally, He brought me to an incredible Bible study where I am challenged like I haven’t been in years. There are times when I feel like I know everything there is to know about God, faith, and the Bible. But through this Bible study, God has been teaching me to let go of everything I think I know and know Him. Every week, I walk away with a new insight on His goodness and am left breathless. It’s been so, so wonderful and my entire faith mindset has shifted dramatically.
It’s scary, letting go of yourself and trusting something you do not see. But, oh my goodness, it’s beautiful. There’s nothing like it in the world. The greatest pleasures in life pale in comparison to the goodness of knowing God.
In the book of Philippians, Paul has similar words:
“But whatever gain I had, I counted it as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that comes by faith.” Philippians 3:7-9
I’m not quite to the level of Paul yet. I haven’t dropped every material thing, nor have I experienced any great suffering. But the spirit behind the verses, the same deep longing and affection for Christ resonates in my heart.
I realize this is a bit different from my usual posts, but the need to express these things in words have been bubbling up in my heart for quite a while. Here they finally are.