Twenty-three years ago, I was born. Twenty-three years ago, my parents had no idea who I would become, but they wished and prayed for the best and greatest for my life. Twenty-three years ago, God had His hand on me and called me His, knowing all that I would go through and how much I would deny Him. Twenty-three years ago, He loved me more than I could have ever imagined or will ever deserve.
The first eleven years of my life were pretty picturesque, at least from my innocent, young perspective during that time. I became an older sister at two years old, and grew up in the same house with two very loving parents. For about five years, my father was a professional race car driver, and so our weekends were spent up and down the state of California in support of him. My mother stayed at home with my brother and I, and eventually began running an in-home daycare. I was loved, and I knew it. I was also quite blessed, never lacking food, clothing, or shelter. My family life was full of fun vacations, regular barbecues in our big backyard, and family dinners spent around the dining room table. We attended the local Catholic church as I grew up - which dad was the driving force behind, namely due to his own upbringing - and it was there that I was baptized at age four, had my first communion, sang in the children's choir, and went through my first catechism class. My family even served in a regular rotation of bringing the elements up to the priest during mass. As a result, I had some ideas of who God was, but I cannot remember any desire for deeper understanding, nor the foundation of a relationship. In my young mind, God just was. He might have been there, but He was distant. He might have been powerful, but He wasn't present. He might have been real, but He was not interesting nor interested. Yet He loved me still.
When I was eleven, the unthinkable happened when my parents split up. My dad moved out of our home, and my mom was forced to act as both a mother and a father to her children - a role that is unnatural and impossible for a woman to truly take on the way it was intended. I also became my mom's confidant in that time, the person she turned to when she needed to talk, cry, or just be (a role that, now, my mom and I both recognize was not okay for me to be put in). I have very vivid memories of sitting in my brother's bedroom during the nights when he was confused, scared, and didn't understand what was going on, and I rushed in to comfort him, reassure him that everything was going to be okay, and tell him that mom and dad both still loved us very much but just didn't love one another anymore. He was nine. I had just turned twelve.
Middle school was, as it is for most people, a weird time of life. On top of the awkwardness of peer pressure, "dating," and cliques, my parents were definitively separated. At school, I struggled with who and where I fit in, and then I would go home and struggle with my roles as a daughter, mother, sister, and friend. Though I was not yet a teenager, it was obvious that I was certainly no longer a child either. I was forced to grow up faster than I should have had to. Under the surface, I became convinced that I could not rely on anyone but myself, and I pushed all of the hurt and confusion from my parents' split to the back of my mind. I quickly learned how to suffocate the feelings and emotions I had about my home life, and I became a master at plastering a smile on my face. By eighth grade, I had finally found my group of friends - who were made up of some of the prettiest girls in the school. I still don't quite understand how I fit into that group... I was the odd one out, but somehow it worked. These people, though, knew little to nothing about my family life. It was in this year, too, that my dad began dating someone who had a daughter that was in high school. I immediately looked up to her, but unfortunately she wasn't the best of influences. In eighth grade, at the age of thirteen, I had my first encounter with drugs and regular encounters with alcohol. I should also mention that, as I began living with my mom the majority of the time, we stopped going to church. I believe that my mom associated it - and everything that goes along with it - with my dad, and so she wanted nothing to do with it. I cannot remember being sad about it, or even missing it. Not once. Yet He loved me still.
Then high school hit. I entered into those four years with the same group of friends from middle school. We were (or at least we thought we were) the cool group to be a part of. We were those freshman girls that got invited to the senior parties, so while school was a priority during the week, my weekends consisted of gossip, parties, sleepovers, and the like... not that I remembered a lot of it. In this time, my insecurity in my physical appearance began taking over my life as I looked around at all of my beautiful, sought-after friends. I deemed myself the "ugly duckling" of the group, ultimately believing myself to be unattractive, uninteresting, and unworthy. Additionally in these years, the things that I had suppressed in regard to my parent's split rose to the surface, and I felt immobilized. I began reliving both good and bad memories; I started making connections between the roles that I was forced into and the roles my parents took after their split; and then I came to the realizationthat no one knew anything. I had never really told anyone details about what happened - other than the bare minimum - because I was so used to relying on myself that I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone, let alone ask for help. My independence - or isolation - caused me to sink into a depression, as I was insecure, alone, and realizing that I was in control of nothing. Soon enough, I found out about something called "cutting." I can't for the life of me remember what drew me in, but I was convinced it would help. I began scratching, burning, and cutting myself as a means of control. Inflicting the physical pain, I was in control of that. Yet I desperately wanted someone to find out what I was doing to myself so that could finally share all that had gone on and was going on in my life. Then after a party one night, a friend found me drunk and bleeding on her bathroom floor, a broken razor blade in one hand and tissues wrapped around my blood-covered arm. I will never forget the look of concern and fear on her face as she helped me clean myself up and called for her older sister to come down and talk to me. I stopped compulsively hurting myself after that night... likely because I finally broke down and shared all that was on my heart. But I still battled constantly with my insecurity, namely in my relationships with boys. I dated a few guys in high school, and "talked to" a handful of others. I wanted to be wanted, and as a result, I had very weak boundaries. Yet He loved me still.
In these years, too, my relationships with my parents really wavered. I was growing up, and I felt like they were still treating me like a little kid. My mom was never home, as she had to go back to work to support the two of us (my brother was by this time living full-time with my dad). My dad and I didn't get along a lot of the time, mainly because I was an angsty teenager trying to deal with a multitude of emotions. At the same time, we were all struggling with our own issues. Ultimately, I rebelled against - and so dishonored - both of my parents... sneaking out of the house, lying to them constantly, having people over when they weren't home, yelling, slamming doors, and just being awful to them. I was a hurt young girl who was, in turn, hurting both of my parents, and I didn't even care. Yet He loved me still.
In my senior year of high school, I was no longer a part of the same group of friends. I became a "floater," bouncing around from group to group. I soon began dating a good guy, and found myself spending a lot of time with him and his family. Eventually, his mom invited me to their church's youth group, to which I replied, "thanks, but no thanks." The feelings that came when church was mentioned were a mixed bag. Up until that point in high school, I had openly claimed to atheism, so when the idea of going to church was introduced, I was confused and angry. The thought of God made me uneasy. I had known who He was once, when I was young, and had even studied the ways of the Bible... but then my parents split up. The thing that my dad made us do - go to church - only reminded me of the pain of their split. And then the questions came flooding in: "Who is God? If He is supposedly good, why did He let my parents stop loving each other? If He is good, why did I experience so much pain and heartbreak growing up? If He is even real, then where the hell is He?" My boyfriend's mom invited me a few more times, and though I started to become interested, I stood stubborn. And then one day, a few peers that I had known for a while invited me to an event at their church, which, of course, happened to be at the same church that my boyfriend's family went to. I finally caved in and said yes, partly due to my intrigue and partly so that they would stop asking me.
I walked into that youth group quite hesitant and skeptical. There were about thirty high schoolers and leaders just hanging out, laughing, and being normal. One of the leaders approached me to introduce himself, and though my natural instinct would have been to put up a 100-foot concrete wall so as to keep these people out, I found in that instant that I simply couldn't. I realized that, despite my preconceived ideas of what church was, this was just different. I began to take in what I could have never seen coming: genuine care, support, and love amongst this group of people. They welcomed me in with open arms, sincerely wanting to get to know me, and I knew in my heart that there was just something different about them. They had something that obviously meant a lot to them, and I felt an innate need to know their secret. I continued attending youth group, eventually learning that their "secret" was really no secret at all. Rather, it was their faith in Christ that set them apart and so intrigued me. I wasn't really sure what it meant to have faith, but I was interested, and very hungry. One week before the youth group was leaving for a winter retreat, a friend said I should call the camp and see if there were any open spots, though it was highly unlikely. I called anyway, hoping that I would be able to go, and found out that they had one open spot. One. So I excitedly confirmed my spot and got ready for a short retreat at Mt. Hermon in the Santa Cruz Mountains. On the first night of that weekend, the speaker presented the question, "If God were to send you a text message right now, what would it say?" Immediately, my mind was flooded with the simple statement, "I miss you." I broke down immediately, knowing those three words came from somewhere far more divine than my own mind. I knew in my heart, as I kneeled in the back of that conference room with tears rolling down my face, that God was in my midst. He was with me, holding my face in His hands, calling me His beloved daughter. He had missed me and He longed for me to recognize myself as His. It was at that moment that I made the life-changing decision to follow Christ. I spent the rest of that weekend journaling, praying, and asking questions, wanting more and more of the God that I was encountering! That retreat ended, and I headed back home knowing that everything was going to change.
Winter break came shortly after, and for the first time, I knew that there was a bigger, more complicated purpose to life. I was beginning to understand that nothing was coincidence or accident or fate. I was learning that God was, is, and will always be in control. As I began my last semester of high school, it became obvious to many that something about me was different. For three and a half years, I lived a life that was full of wordliness - drunkenness, lust, immorality, and sin - and to the eyes of others, it was as if I suddenly just completely changed. Really, I just knew that I needed to get rid of the old life I had lived and seek God instead. I had truly started to become a new creation, and many didn't understand. Sometimes even I didn't understand! And I was hardly able to explain it in any way other than that God had grabbed ahold of my heart and revealed Himself to me in a very real way. After graduating from high school, my youth group went on a mission trip to the island of Puerto Rico. It was there that God ignited in my heart a passion for children, which later turned into a passion for vocational ministry to children. In this time, I struggled, doubted, and fell short many times in my search to grow in Christ. Yet He loved me still.
I graduated high school with plans to attend the local junior college, which I wasn't very excited about. Most of my friends were heading off for college all over the country, and I was one of the only ones from my youth group who stayed back. To say that I busied myself would be an understatement. I was a full-time student, worked two jobs, babysat, and volunteered at my church. I also started attending young adult small groups through another local church. But the truth was that I grew very stagnant very quickly. I was overcommitted, exhausted, and so focused on getting away that I missed many of the opportunities that were right in front of me. Looking back now, I realize how many moments I missed to share the gospel with those around me who didn't really know Jesus - especially my parents. Granted, I didn't think that I was strong enough in my own faith to share it with others, but I wish that I would have been more confident and reliant on God to do it through me. On the positive side, however, my time spent at home after high school granted me the opportunity to grow very close to three women who have become amazing mentors, friends, and spiritual-mothers to me. They have prayed for me, loved me as their own, and encouraged me to grow closer to God, particularly in a time when I felt very stuck and alone. Soon enough though, by what I say is divine leading, I stumbled upon the website of the university that I would soon call home.
I somehow managed to transfer to a private Christian university in my fourth semester of college, and I saw God's hand at work in the process. There was no way I was going to be able to pay for school on my own, yet the Lord provided, over and over again and beyond what I deserved. I moved on campus, became fast friends with my first roommate, and then experienced complete culture shock. I felt like I didn't fit among the students at my school who knew the Bible, who were confident in their faith, and who so clearly knew and loved Jesus. Though I had been a believer for two years, I was still a baby in my faith. I was shy, insecure, and fearful, and although I was overwhelmed by my surroundings, I was ready and eager to grow in my faith.
In my time at my university, I was challenged and encouraged to step up in leadership. I was also called to a mission trip across the Atlantic, where I served in a hostel in Amsterdam. There, I was challenged to share my story with total strangers, which was very unlike me. But I came back from that trip realizing that God needed to take me all the way to the Netherlands to teach me that it wasn't my story that I was sharing, rather that it was His story of redemption. I eventually shared my testimony in chapel in front of my peers and professors, which was one of the scariest moments of my life. I never thought that I would willingly share the person that I used to be with people who really only knew me for who I had become in Christ. In fact, I wrestled with the Lord over it a lot, for I feared that people might not understand my past and current struggles. I also feared that they may look at me differently. But I was reminded that I shouldn't seek the approval of man. So in complete faith, I did what the Lord was asking of me, and was completely blown away as I found myself supported, encouraged, and enveloped in a community of love and grace. From there, I began sharing pieces of my story more often and more candidly if and when I believed the Lord was leading me to do so. Eventually, with the encouragement of a friend, I made the decision to be baptized for the first time as a Christian in chapel. It was the most public of proclamations, again in front of my peers and professors, and I will never forget some of my best friends standing around the pool that I was baptized in, cheering me on the entire time. Looking back, I see that the Lord used the chapel services at my university as quite the catalyst in my journey. From sharing my story, to being baptized, to preaching in front of my peers, God faithfully led me to do things that I simply know I could never have done on my own. By the end of my super senior year, as we were all gearing up for graduation, I was also trying to figure out "what I was going to do with my life."
Graduation marked the second time my parents made the trip up to my university, the place that I had called home for more than three years. To my surprise and delight, both my mom and dad, along with my brother (who are not active followers of Christ), came to the baccalaureate service the night before grad. I was able to share with them, along with my peers and professors, a small part of what my journey through college meant to me, namely the opportunities I was given as I grew in my faith in Christ. The next day, I found out that my dad got to the graduation location more than two hours early to save seats for all of my family members and friends, and that one small act made it clear to me how much my father truly loved me. And on top of simply graduating, I was surprised and honored to receive an award at graduation, but what meant more to me than anything was that my family was there to see it happen. They became witnesses to all that my faith meant to me, namely my confidence in that the Lord was real and He was good, and that He had the power the truly transform a life that should have headed somewhere totally different.
It was also in my college years that I entered into my first romantic relationship as a Christian with a great guy who was like my best friend. At that time, I was also seeking to grow deeper in my relationship with and understanding of God, but I soon discovered that it was quite difficult for me to do both wholeheartedly. One relationship often took the forefront more than the other. In the end, that relationship didn't work out and my heart was very broken, but the Lord truly became my refuge and strength. I found myself clinging to Him more than I ever had, seeking Him more and more each day, and learning that His best was yet to come. From that relationship, I grew more confident in who God had made me to be and in the gifts and talents He had given me. I also learned a lot about love: that it must be sacrificial and full of both forgiveness and grace. As in any relationship, I was also reminded of how flawed we are as human beings and that God really is the only One who is perfect. In my college years, while I grew closer to the Lord and more into the woman He created me to be, I still struggled, doubted, and fell short many times. Yet He loved me still.
After graduating, God showed me that, while I believed He was leading me away from it, He was actually calling me to return to children's ministry. That summer - this past summer - was a serious season of refinement. God stripped me of so many of the things that I had found comfort in, which was extremely difficult, but He continued to remind me and show me that He was Sovereign. I struggled with my plans and hopes for my life, only to be filled with a deeper desire for His plans. I wrestled with the loss of relationships only to find complete satisfaction in my relationship with Him. I longed to do what He wanted me to do, wherever He wanted me to go. I began a wonderful nannying job with an amazing family, and then was approached by a local church to work in their children's ministry. Though it wasn't necessarily where I would have placed myself, God very clearly reminded me that His plans are higher and greater, and that I needed to be obedient to His leading. "Remember, you do not serve man. You serve Me. And this is where I want you right now," were the words that convinced me to take the job. So that is where I am currently: figuring out post-grad life, nannying for two adorable girls, and serving as the 3rd & 4th grade ministry leader at a large church. I am also growing more in my love for Jesus Christ while learning how to live a radical life of faith in a culture where it is all too easy to seek comfort and safety. I am praying more fervently, sharing Jesus more boldly, and relying on the Lord more wholly. Whatever He may have planned for me up ahead is relatively unknown, but I am excited for wherever He chooses to lead me next.
I am not at all the person that I was before I claimed Christ, and I honestly don't even know anymore who that girl was, let alone who she could be right now. I am constantly amazed by the ways that He has used and continues to use my struggles to bring glory to His name. As a very real part of my life, I must admit that I do still struggle with many of my past issues. Thankfully, my God is bigger and more powerful than my flesh, and I am nothing but a work in progress.
To this day, I still bear three visible scars on my upper forearm as a result of my cutting, which now serve as a personal reminder of how good God really is and how far He has taken me. My story is one of brokenness, redemption, and powerful transformation in a life that was and is in desperate need of Him. I pray that God may continue to use this story - my story - to bring Himself glory and lead others to see that He is able to truly save a life. I know that for the rest of my days I will continue to struggle, doubt, and fall short. But I also know that He loves me still, and He always will.