I don’t know what writing my story is going to look like. It could simply be something that I do throughout this blog. I really don’t know. Some snatches and tidbits I have already written–numerous reflections already on my computer. And about four journals that go along with it. I really do not know. But like I said, this blog–this was started in the middle of the story. There is a whole lot that came before, some of the biggest moments. Someday I will share them. I will share them on here or I will write a book about it or I will just speak it aloud. But here is my beginning, the beginning of this journey. I wrote it just a few months ago. If I did write a book, this is how I would start it. At the beginning. Because this is the truth.
In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. I should have known that I would have to deal with this someday. Like the tide along the ocean, dealing with the death of my mom has flowed in and out over the years, small little waves that hit the shoreline. There were stormy seasons when it was hard to deal with, but it never lasted long. The tide would pull back out leaving plenty of room for me to frolic in the sand without worrying if the waves would get too close, protected in my little harbor from the ocean depths beyond. Of course, I was always aware of the ocean out there, not too far away. But I never let it get near me if I could help it. But sometimes storm clouds arise out of nowhere and we never see them coming. Even on the sunniest of days, clouds can quickly come rolling in, making those peaceful waves choppy. Rain starts falling, and those gentle, lapping waves become fierce and giant, pounding the shore with an intensity that I always knew they had in them, but had never witnessed before. The waves had never hit me that hard, had never flowed so high up the shore to where I stood. I suppose that I did have a choice. I could have run for higher ground. Maybe there was a part of me that knew that the storm wouldn’t go away unless I actually embraced the howling surf and was willing to let my feet part with the sand altogether. I allowed myself to get swept away by the tide. It was the best decision I ever made.
It really is interesting how when you look back on your life, on certain seasons or certain events, you can see how it all makes sense somehow. You can see the warning signs and moments of foreshadowing that are totally lost in the bustle of life in the moment, an interwoven tapestry that isn’t visible at the time. God sent me a big sign months before the storm came crashing in, but of course I couldn’t have understood what it truly meant. Life wouldn’t be half as interesting if we knew everything ahead of time–even the hard moments. There are so many more opportunities for beauty and mystery that unfold just as they are supposed to when we are left in the dark. But still, in some ways it was like God was lighting up one of those huge billboards that you see on the freeway. I’m sure if this warning sign were a billboard, it would say something like: “Kelly, are you ready to sit in your brokenness? Enjoy a few more months of peace before life gets crazy!” Or maybe something more like: “Are you ready to suffer? I promise that there can be joy in it! Want a taste?” Perhaps it would be even more frank: “Kel, the single most important person in your life died. You realize you’re going to have to deal with that someday, right?” Obviously I would have quickly said no to each of those signs had I driven past them. In fact, I probably would have started to head in the opposite direction. Sit in my brokenness? No thanks! Suffering? Heck no! Thankfully God didn’t actually do that. Instead His question to me was much more gently asked, like a warm summertime breeze–and it was a question, because it was a choice. If there really was a billboard that God displayed in front of me during this time, I’m sure it would have said: “Are you ready to follow everything you believe in?” The answer would have been yes. It was yes. That’s the point.
Writing is my passion. It has been for so long. And in the months leading up to these unexpected storm clouds, a story was put on my heart about a girl that loses her first love in a plane crash. The book centers mainly on how she deals with coping with the death of the man she planned to marry one day. Although there is much more to the story than that (and I have had enough books ruined for me to not talk about it more than that), I didn’t realize at the time that I was writing a book about the deepest desire of my heart, the inward yearning, the most impossible dream–to have my mom. To know her and not just know about her. To actually have her here with me. I still had so much to learn about her, about grief and the impact of losing a loved one. But through the lives of the characters in this book, two things happened. This part of me that had been so deeply buried my entire life made an appearance in allowing me to acknowledge that what I wanted most was my mom. The second were the Bible verses that this whole book is centered around that I didn’t even realize at the time as I was writing it until the very end–Song of Solomon 8:6-7. These verses state: “Place me like a seal over your heart, like a seal on your arm; for love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like a blazing fire, like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot wash it away.”
Even now as I write, I am just amazed at what those words say and how they played directly into this huge journey that God was about to put before me. I had no idea at the time that I was about to live out everything in those verses. I had been a follower of God for about six years at that point, having given my heart to the Lord at the age of fifteen through reading Christian fiction novels as a teenager. I had said many prayers during those years, professed many things, and had always had this hunger to grow closer to God, sensing even then that He had big plans for my life. And God was about to make me prove it–prove that I truly was willing to follow everything I claim to believe in. In our lives, I think we are faced daily, even multiple times per day, with whether or not we are going to choose to follow God. Many times those moments of decision come in very small ways, and we may not even realize that we are making a decision between choosing God and ourselves. But then there are times when that decision means everything, is literally the difference between life and death. That moment came to me when I least expected it. The thing is, I asked for it, too. I asked for all of this to happen. I had no idea what it would mean and look like, of course, but I wanted it. I had been telling God for months that I wanted to open every single door and window of my heart to Him, trusting that He had a purpose for my life beyond what I could ever fully know or imagine or even hope for myself. I asked for this. I asked for God to take my all, and He did. I just had no idea what it would look like. If I had known, I might not have asked, and that would have been a shame. Actually, it would have sucked. Yes, not going through the suffering would have sucked, and I really mean it.
I was in my junior year of college at a small Christian university in Southern California. Each year this school hosts a missions conference in the month of March, where for 2-3 days classes are put on hold and instead students are required to attend various sessions and seminars all related to missions work, whether overseas or close to home. Some of these sessions are very experiential and hands-on, others are in a big auditorium with a speaker. Although I was in my third year of college, I had never actually attended one of these conferences. Up until that current school year, students were able to choose to attend the conferences in person where they received chapel credit, or to make them up later by listening to the messages and filling out a list of questions about each one. I had always chosen to do the latter because it afforded me a nice long weekend (even though I would skip my Monday and Tuesday classes and make a week out of it…oops!) to fly home to upstate New York and visit my dad and see some of my friends. However in my third year the chapel requirements were changed and students had to attend four out of the eight sessions that they needed in order to receive credit. Therefore it was my first time to attend these conferences in person, and I honestly was not excited about them at all. I personally thought they would be a huge guilt trip into flying to parts unknown to be a missionary. But if I am being honest, I think that’s what I told myself to hide my real fear that God may very well ask me to do that! I absolutely did not have the best attitude going into day one of these conferences. I do have to say they are extremely different when you are there in person and not listening to them as a podcast while simultaneously folding laundry or doing dishes or driving in the car. It was one of the longest days of my life.
I have to interject here to mention that two days before this missions conference I copied down a set of song lyrics into my journal, saying that they had “pierced my heart” and therefore I had to write them down. They were words that I had sung in the gymnasium of my school as part of a chapel service, where I would be sitting just two days later when the tide came rushing in. The song is called “You Won’t Relent” (link at bottom of post). I had no idea of this glorious, interwoven tapestry that was taking place. The words of this song go like this:
You won’t relent until You have it all
My heart is Yours
You won’t relent until You have it all
My heart is Yours
I’ll set You as a seal upon my heart
As a seal upon my arm
For there is love that is as strong as death
Jealousy demanding as the grave
And many waters cannot quench this love
You won’t relent until You have it all
My heart is Yours
Come be the fire inside of me
Come be the flame upon my heart
Come be the fire inside of me
Until You and I are one
Oh my goodness. Not only did I write a full length novel about the very verses that this song is based off of, I then went and sang them back to my God in worship. The icing on top of the cake is the prayer that I wrote out in my journal right after writing those lyrics down. March 16, 2009: “This is my humble prayer to You tonight. I want to give You my all, every single part of me. I want to set You as a seal upon my arm, upon my heart. Your love is stronger than death, and I want to love You above all else. I pray that You would be the fire inside of me. I want to lift up my hands to You always because there is nothing else that I want more than You, Lord. I have no idea what is up ahead, but You do. And I have a feeling that it is more than this. Please help me to learn how to be Yours alone, to give up everything, to give up myself to follow You. I want to be a living sacrifice for You, Lord. I give You my all. Please take my all. Amen.”
Prayer should come with a warning label. Here is one right now–People, God listens to what we say, even those half-hearted prayers that we are not even sure we mean but we mumble the words anyway. He hears them. He not only hears them, He also answers them, and usually in ways that we never would have anticipated or would have ever asked for and could have never expected. We’ve all been told to “be careful what you wish for” at one point in our lives. I say be careful what you pray for! I had no idea what I was truly asking for when I wrote out those prayerful words in my journal that night. I meant them with all my heart, but I had no idea what it would mean. God answered the prayer I wrote that night. He showed me that He really is in relentless pursuit of His people until He has their whole heart. He took my all, just as I asked. He became the fire inside of me by leading me into the flame itself. And it all started two days after I prayed those words in the same gymnasium where I sang out these verses about God having my all.
The first day of the missions conference, I had already attended four sessions before the final evening session began. I was on missions overload by that time and didn’t have much more head room or heart room to take anything else in. They pack a lot of punch into these conferences, so many stories of people being brave and bold for God–which was hard to hear when although I was praying big prayers about it, I still felt anything but bold and brave. Yet there I was walking into a packed gymnasium for the final session of the evening having no idea of what I was about to face. I was mentally preparing myself to endure two more hours before I could go home and just go to bed. George Verwer, the founder of the missions organization Operation Mobilization, was the speaker. He had also opened the conference that morning, and something about the compelling way he talked had me dreading this evening session all day long. Perhaps it was the months of unknown preparation leading up to this very moment; as I took a seat amongst thousands of my fellow peers, I knew something big was coming. I could feel it in my bones. Although I was terrified of it, I walked into that conference expecting some sort of call on my life. I sat in my seat stroking a gold ID bracelet that had adorned my wrist for years, engraved with Psalm 138:8 on it–“The LORD will fulfill his purpose for your life.” I knew He would. And the next stage of the journey was about to unfold in that evening session. That call that I was expecting absolutely did come, but in a way that knocked me breathless.
George Verwer is a very passionate man. I honestly have no idea what he even talked about that night, minus a very small amount, but I remember his demeanor and his passion for missions and for people to know God. He started the session, wearing a jacket with a map of the world on it, by talking about the top ten countries in the world that were currently in need of missionaries that Operation Mobilization was trying to reach and send missionaries into. I only remember one country he mentioned. It was about number four or five on his list. For the other countries he had previously mentioned, he just gave some basic information about how many people his organization had already sent into these areas and what they were currently doing. But then he mentioned Libya. That alone sent a jolt to my heart. Unlike what he had done for the previous countries that he had mentioned, George went off on a tangent about America’s unique connection with Libya due to Gaddafi and the bombing of Pan American Flight 103. I was frozen in my seat. The floodgate of tears that I suspect had been waiting to spill for 21 years at that point began to descend down my face. He had no idea, of course. No one did. No one knew that in that audience there sat the youngest child to lose a parent onboard Pan Am 103 when it was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland by Libyan sponsored terrorists. No one knew that to some it isn’t just a piece of history, but on ongoing reality. My mother, uncle, and grandfather were returning home from a short trip to England, just days before Christmas in December of 1988, when the plane that they were on was blown to pieces in the sky. I was eleven months old at the time, too young to remember my mom. However there is not a time in my life when I cannot remember growing up hearing all about Pan Am 103.
In that moment, I was so completely startled by just hearing a casual mention of Pan Am 103 as a simple historical fact. I was so startled to be so startled by such a thing. Yet there I sat, gushing tears in my seat at the mere mention of it. From that point on, I heard not one word of what he said until the very end. I sat there crying for the entire session. I had never reacted that way before to hearing about Pan Am 103, but I had also never heard it just randomly mentioned. I was sitting in a gymnasium packed with students, and not a single person there could have understood what those few words had done to me. I sat there in turmoil, partly freaking myself out by my reaction to it all, this emotional outburst that was so entirely surprising to me by its intensity. I was wrestling with myself and why I was so upset and what it was supposed to mean, because clearly that well of emotion had been waiting to erupt and had to mean something. But then in the darkness a soothing, healing balm of light entered deep into my soul that was enough to calm me down and stop the heavy flow of tears. This extraordinary moment of peace came in the form of three very clear, inexplicable words. Words that came from somewhere outside of me, but filled me with their very presence and certainty. Words that came from the very God that I had been promising I would give my all to–and this was Him ready to take it. This is what He was asking of me: “Tell your story.” That is what I heard. Three very simple words, yet three words that in that moment became the precursor to a three-year and probably lifelong journey of healing a wound that until that evening seminar I had no idea I even had.
The rest of my life was hinging on a decision that I had to then make. I had no idea what to make of these words that were spoken into the depths of my heart, but they were enough to fill me with a sense of purpose and dry that well of tears for the moment. They were enough to calm me down for the pivotal moment when God truly asked me if I would take Him up on His offer for Him to be my all. By that point I was able to tune in long enough to hear the very end of George Verwer’s message. He asked for those of us to stand who when they heard the Lord calling for us to “go,” whatever that may mean for our individual lives, would be willing to respond, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8). And I stood. My legs were shaking and I could barely hold myself up, but I stood. I’m not sure I even fully meant it in the moment, but I knew I wanted to mean it, and that was enough. It was enough because I had promised to give my life to follow everything I believe in, no matter what. And that’s exactly what God was asking of me now–no matter what.
Somehow over the course of that night after the conference, it settled in that everything about my life was different now as a direct result of what happened in that session. I cannot tell you how it was so different, but somehow in the matter of two hours the lens through which I had been viewing my life up until that point just no longer applied. As I sat and thought on what I had experienced in that gymnasium, I knew that the course of my life had completely altered and things would never be the same. I suppose it was the path that I was headed down all along, that everything had been pointing to, but I couldn’t see it until that moment. I still couldn’t see it even then. That night was only the beginning of one very huge journey filled with some enormous heights and deepest valleys that I never could have anticipated. That night was the beginning, the departure from the sandy seashore.
I had so many questions, but one thing I did know was that I was no longer in the calm harbor that I had gotten used to. God was leading me out to sea, willing me to trust Him and cling to Him in ways I never had before, so that I was not turned around and tossed about by the waves. As Oswald Chambers states in his devotional My Utmost for His Highest, “Put everything in your life afloat upon God, going out to sea on the great swelling tide of His purpose, and your eyes will be opened. If you believe in Jesus, you are not to spend all your time in the calm waters just inside the harbor, full of joy, but always tied to the dock. You have to get out past the harbor into the great depths of God.” I was leaving behind the calm waters of what my life was, ready to embrace what was ahead and willing to become something that I had never been. I was headed out to sea, not knowing when I would glimpse the shore again, but filled with a purpose that defied understanding. I told my God to take my all, and now he was asking to be my all in return, no matter what.
That is the beginning of my story.